It’s not often that the words “cool” and “diabetes” get used in the same sentence, but researchers at MIT and Harvard have joined the two concepts with an idea for creating tattoos that change color based on the blood sugar level of the person wearing them.
The project has the oddly dystopian name of the Dermal Abyss (or, as they call it d-abyss) and is a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and Harvard Medical School, according to Katia Vega, a post doctoral associate at MIT and a member of the team.
“The Dermal Abyss is a proof-of-concept that illustrates the potential of culturally and medically integrated biosensors,” Vega says. “They are biosensor tattoos that visibly react to changes in the metabolism. The purpose of the work is to light the imagination of biotechnologists and stimulate public support for such efforts.”
The tattoos they designed will not be showing up in a pharmacy or tattoo shop any time soon. “The purpose of the work is to highlight a novel possibility for biosensors rather than bring a medical device to market,” Vega says. “As such, there are currently no plans to develop the Dermal Abyss as a product or to pursue clinical trials.”
Like a hot concept car, there is real technology in the tattoos that were produced for the project. Various iterations of the tattoos sense changes not only in glucose but in pH, which can indicate dehydration and changes in sodium ion, which can give indications of hypertension.
For glucose, the colors change from a light blue at a reading of five, and go through five shade changes until it’s dark brown at a reading of 110.
The team at d-abyss inserted biosensors in place of traditionally used tattoo ink into skin from a pig at a depth of 10 millimeters to create the tattoos. The sensors then read interstitial fluid to gauge various levels of glucose, sodium, and pH, and change colors accordingly.
The key to unlocking the possibility of such a project is not only an imaginative concept of what is possible in joining fashion, art, and medicine, but the evolution of biosensors to an incredibly small size and high functionality.
Most people with diabetes are already familiar with the concept of biosensors from testing their blood sugar with glucose testing strips. They work, of course, by taking a drop of blood and once inserted into a machine, creating a reading of glucose levels in the blood. That kind of technology is also the basis for biosensors that are implantable under the skin and used in continuous glucose monitors, or CGMs.
This desire to create ever more cost effective and bio-reactive technology is being driven by healthcare needs, such as measuring glucose, but also because there are environmental and commercial uses, such as food testing, as well as other consumer applications, like fitness monitors. Because there are multiple commercial applications for the technology—in other words, there’s money to be made—development of smaller and more sophisticated biosensors is being perfected at universities and laboratories around the world.
As an example, scientists who are part of the Electrocatalysis and Polymer Electrochemistry research group at the University of Alicante, in Spain, are working on biosensors “designed to detect neurotransmitters, like dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine, and metabolites such as glucose, vitamin C and uric acid,” according to the publication phys.org. “Specifically, they are working on electrochemical biosensors that can be used directly on physiological fluids (blood, urine, saliva, etc.) and afford the same precision and reliability as lab testing.”
One idea the group is developing is using silica, or silicon oxide, to create a chemical reaction between proteins in the body and an electromagnetic sensor. The benefits of using silica are simple: As one of the main components of sand, it’s plentiful and inexpensive.
The d-abyss team is not the first to jump at the available opportunities forged by improved technology for melding fashion and medicine in entirely new ways.
Materials scientist John Rogers co-founded mc10 in 2008. The company develops thin, wearable temporary tattoos that are actually systems for gathering biomedical information, such as those that track cardiac health. The basics of the technology are that Rogers took clunky, large silica-based biosensors and chopped them up into little pieces that could then be melded into tattoo-like sensors. One of mc10’s most high profile partners, for instance, is the cosmetics company L’Oreal, for whom they developed a UV patch that gathers information about the wearer’s skin.
The benefits of having technology more closely integrated with the moving, active human body is that information gathered is more useful because it’s more reflective of how people actually interact with the real world. There is, after all, a huge difference between taking an EEG reading at a doctor’s office while lying still and taking a continuous reading while a person shops, eats, drives and otherwise goes about their normal day.
The d-abyss team appears very aware of the far-reaching implications of wearable, biomedical technology. The questions raised by the new application of biosensors in this public way raise many issues that will take time to resolve, if they are ever resolved.
“Can tattoos embrace technology in order to make the skin interactive?” Vega says. “What impact might this have on our understanding of ourselves? Are we now willing to publicly display even protected health information in exchange for easier access to knowledge of our own body? Can an interface as normalized as tattoos help destigmatize disease and treatment? These questions of how technology impacts our lives must be considered as carefully as the design of the molecular sensors patients may someday carry embedded in their skin.”