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Interactive tattoos could spell relief for diabetics

By CHRIS DAVIS in New York | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-06-14 15:02

Diabetics need to test their blood glucose levels three to 10 times a day through the painful, invasive and annoying process of pricking their skin to draw a drop of blood - either that or sport expensive blood-sugar monitoring equipment that is burdensome at best.

A team at MIT/Harvard Medical School may have come up with relief. It's a way of turning your skin into a way of seeing what's going on beneath the surface.

"I believe that people want to understand what's happening in their body," said Xin Liu, research assistant at the MIT Media Lab, where the Dermal Abyss project envisions a future where the aggravating finger-pricking procedure is replaced with a tattoo that changes colors as blood sugar levels ebb and spike.

Interactive tattoos could spell relief for diabetics

"We are pushing the idea that our biological body surface can be used as the interactive interface, instead of a gadget," said Liu, who is from Xinjiang and did her undergraduate studies at Tsinghua University.

Traditional tattoo ink would be replaced with dyes that are actually biosensors, turning the skin surface into an interactive display and providing direct access to metabolic processes going on inside the body.

So far the team has tested pH sensors that change from purple to pink, glucose sensors that go from blue to brown and sodium and a second pH sensor that fluoresce under ultraviolet light.

Liu said the placement of the tattoo on the body matters since "different body areas have different skin structures and interstitial fluid conditions."

She also said people would be able to select their own designs, which would affect the visual effects, especially the intensity of the color.

Liu said at this stage the Dermal Abyss tattoo project is meant to be a proof-of-concept study to show that sensing reagents can be injected into the skin and has only been tested on ex-vivo pig skin samples, "not living breathing animals and humans."

Still, Liu told CBS News, "people with diabetes email us and say, 'I want to try it out.'"

But Liu warns that it will take a long time for anything practical to arrive on the market. "These sensing reagents for ions and glucose cannot be used reversibly or clinically in their current stage," she explained, adding that the monitoring technology is still being developed.

She hopes that the project stimulates and inspires others in their field to explore the possibilities in the medical and bio-monitoring industry, she said.

In concept, the technology could be used in applications that continuously monitor medical diagnostics or data encoding inside the body.

Since the beginning, our skin has been a billboard display for what's going on inside us, with blushing and flushing and going pale giving away everything from emotions like embarrassment and rage to conditions like fever and jaundice, even death. We've been reading each other's skin forever.

The Dermal Abyss seems to take the instinct a giant step into the future. Liu, who said she and her collaborator Kati Vega have been working on skin interfaces for years, said the technology would not lead to any patents.

The project is purely research at this point, but that doesn't stop them from envisioning cooperative projects between the world of biotech and "skin professionals" such as prosthesis experts and tattooists.

What lies beyond monitoring levels of glucose, pH and salt? "I prefer to leave this to future researchers to answer," Liu said.

Contact the writer at chrisdavis@chinadailyusa.com

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