Last week, I wrote about a new technology being used to diagnose diabetes. Down the road, when diabetics are diagnosed using that innovative breathalyzer, they might maintain proper blood sugar levels with the help of another new nanotech device. MIT researchers Michael Strano and Paul Barone are developing a “tattoo” that will help patients constantly monitor their glucose levels—without having to draw blood.
According to the American Diabetes Association, nearly 8 percent of the American population currently has this serious disease. Existing technologies require patients to prick their fingers several times a day, enough to make the process a painfully unpleasant chore, to say the least.
“Diabetes is an enormous problem, global in scope, and despite decades of engineering advances, our ability to accurately measure glucose in the human body still remains quite primitive,” says Michael Strano, MIT’s Charles and Hilda Roddey associate professor of chemical engineering. “It is a life-and-death issue for a growing number of people.”
The new sensing system involves injecting glucose-sensitive nanoparticles beneath the skin in a kind of “tattoo.” The patient then wears a wristwatchlike device that tracks the particles. The technology relies on nanotubes that are wrapped in glucose-responsive polymers. When the polymers encounter blood sugar, they cause the nanotubes to flash light, which the sensor recognizes with near-infrared detection. Nanotubes’ unique resilience to light exposure means the device can provide constant information without damaging the particles.
More likely in a bar than a hospital, tattoos might be the future to diabetic health (source: Christine Daniloff via MIT).
Existing wearable devices for blood sugar monitoring are quite flawed. Several types are only approved for weeklong use, while others require pricking the finger for blood. Despite these weak technologies, scientists agree that constant glucose monitoring would be the best way to manage diabetes.
“The most problematic consequences of diabetes result from relatively short excursions of a person’s blood sugar outside of the normal physiological range—following meals, for example,” says Strano. “If we can detect and prevent these excursions, we can go a long way toward reducing the devastating impact of this disease.”
Although the researchers say that they will not be able to test the technology in humans any time soon, they will shortly begin animal trials.