Glucose Monitoring Medical Tattoo

Tattoos aren’t just an art form or a way of making a personal statement anymore: They are beginning to save lives.

Scientists from the Draper Laboratory are developing a medical tattoo that would do away with needle sticks to measure glucose levels. “We can follow the same trends as a finger stick glucometer,” said Heather Clark, a scientist at the Draper Laboratory near Boston, in Discovery News. Her study, recently published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, describes the team’s glucose monitoring tattoo, which isn’t a true tattoo. A typical tattoo involves repeatedly sticking a patient with a solid needle that penetrates deep into the skin to permanently stain the tissue with dark colors.

Clark’s prototype medical tattoo, however, would use a single stick from a hollow needle to stain the first few layers of skin yellowish orange for about a week. The yellow-orange dye contains tiny nanosensors, little balls about 100 nanometers across. Glucose is drawn into the heart of the sensors, where it changes the color of a tiny pigment molecule. As the amount of glucose rises, the color of the tattoo becomes lighter. As glucose levels fall, the tattoo gets darker. Although the change in color is almost imperceptible to the human eye, the difference is enormous if viewed from a special handheld camera.

In the study, the researchers successfully used their camera to track glucose levels as they rose and fell in mice. To ensure that their readings were accurate, they measured the amount of glucose in the blood at the same time. The blood glucose levels matched the glucose levels in the skin, which were measured by Clark’s tattoo. In addition to tracking relative changes in glucose levels, the researchers have developed nanosensors that give exact measurements of glucose levels in the body, which they plan to begin testing next year.

Clark hopes that patients will soon be picking up an EpiPen-like device from their local pharmacist and self-administering the tattoo once a week. To read the tattoo, patients would need a cell-phone-sized reader, said Clark. All the patient would need to do is pull out the reader and take a picture of the tattoo to get a reading, which could then be sent to their health professional.

The development of prescription tattoos such as the one being developed by Clark follows a trend rising rapidly in the medical industry– that of using tattoos to convey medical information to healthcare providers- especially when patients are unable to communicate, such as when in a hypoglycemic state. Some patients are tatooing their condition in clear view with the ambulance seal and an announcment of their condition, such as  type 1 diabetes, asthma,  or even “organ donor.” Many doctors do not advocate such tattoos, but they do stress that if you decide to get one, consult with your healthcare provider first regarding the risks specific to your medical condition and to verify the competence and sterile practices of your tattoo artist.

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