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Scientists have developed a color-changing tattoo ink that can monitor health in real-time by changing its color in response to minor changes in the human body's metabolism (pH, albumin, blood glucose, sodium). This article discusses different ways in which people with serious health issues, such as diabetes or kidney disease, can track their conditions in real-time with the help of tattoo biosensors.
Dermal Abyss- A Revolutionary Technology to Monitor Health in Real-Time
The MIT Media Lab researcher Katia Vega, envisioned the project Dermal Abyss which involves the replacement of traditional tattoo ink with liquid biosensors, using skin as a potential interface. In collaboration with Harvard Medical School, Vega developed three different types of biosensor inks that can gauge any change in the interstitial fluid of the skin.
Scientists have replaced the traditional tattoo inks with biosensors that possess colorimetric and fluorescent properties indicating changes in the level of pH, glucose, and sodium present in the interstitial fluid of the skin. The outcome of this research also revealed that the skin provides essential information related to the body’s metabolism, which can be decoded by wearable biosensors.
Dermal Abyss involves the insertion of biosensors into the skin, which could display color changes in response to the alterations of the biomarkers present in the interstitial fluid. This technology has been developed with a combination of traditional methods of tattoo artistry and biotechnology. This technology utilizes the idea of permanence, visibility, and aesthetic nature of tattoos to decode important information.
Color changing tattoo ink
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In the case of blood glucose ink biosensors, as the blood glucose level rises, the sensor changes its color from blue to brown. Scientists believe that their glucose-sensing tattoo could be highly beneficial for diabetes patients who previously had to undergo constant monitoring of glucose levels with pin-prick blood tests.
The research team has also developed a biosensor ink that could indicate a change in pH level, i.e., color shifts from pink to purple with an increase in pH level. For the detection of the concentration of sodium present in the blood, a vibrant green color develops under UV light with an increase in the level of sodium.
These biosensors could be used effectively in medical diagnostics. However, these products are still in the proof-of-concept stage, and there is no revelation of when it will be available in the market as it is still undergoing further research to determine the accuracy, safety and reliability in medical diagnosis.
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Blood Glucose Sensor Similar to Temporary Tattoo
A research team at Jacobs School of Engineering, University of California, San Diego, has developed a needleless sensor that measures blood glucose levels from human perspiration. The research team is led by Joseph Wang, DSc, director of the school’s Center for Wearable Sensors, and Patrick Mercier, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
This sensor can be applied similarly to a child’s temporary tattoo; the patch is dabbed with a small amount of water, and the black paper is removed to activate the sensor on the arm.
The biosensor contains a printed material that comprises two electrodes. These electrodes employ a small current, which is required to measure the concentration of blood sugar.
The current generated by the electrodes forces the glucose molecules that are present just below the skin to rise to the surface and hence it is measured. This is a new technology that is still in the trial phase. Scientists are analyzing its accuracy and reliability for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes patients.
The research team believes that their technology would provide real-time information to diabetes patients, allowing them to manage their sugar consumption and doses of insulin more accurately, and in a painless manner.
Color-Changing Tattoo Ink to Monitor Health in Real-Time
Another research team at the Technical University of Munich, led by Dr. Ali Yetise, has also created a dye that has the potential to change its color in accordance with the metabolism of the body. The concept has been successfully tested on pig’s skin, and scientists are highly optimistic about the development and utilization of their product to monitor patients with diabetes and kidney problems.
Scientists revealed that their dye biosensor is responsive against three biomarkers present in the interstitial fluid, i.e., albumin, blood glucose level, and pH level. The dye reacts with the biomarkers present in the interstitial fluid and indicates its concentration by changing its color. For a straightforward evaluation of the color changes, the researchers have also developed applications for smartphones. These could help to decode the color of the tattoos and indicate the possible health concerns.
The albumin ink biosensor indicates the presence of albumin; the dye shifts from yellow (low albumin) to green (high albumin). The low level of albumin signal liver, kidney failure or conditions such as Crohn’s or celiac disease, which inhibit the body from absorbing protein. Similarly, the glucose-detecting ink shifts from yellow to dark green. The changes in the pH level of a person could indicate many health problems, especially related to the lungs and kidneys, which help regulate blood acidity. When the pH levels rise from five to nine, the tattoo ink changes from yellow to blue.
References and Further Reading
Diabetes.co.uk (2019) Tattoo developed that changes colour in response to blood glucose levels. Available at: https://www.diabetes.co.uk/news/2019/jul/tattoo-developed-that-changes-colour-in-response-to-blood-glucose-levels-99868253.html (Accessed on 11 August 2020).
Regina Schaffer (2018) Needleless ‘tattoo sensor’ measures glucose levels through sweat. Available at: https://www.healio.com/news/endocrinology/20180504/needleless-tattoo-sensor-measures-glucose-levels-through-sweat?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Healio__TrendMD_1 (Accessed on 11 August 2020).
Mit Media Lab (2017) DermalAbyss: Possibilities of Biosensors as a Tattooed Interface. Available at: https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/d-Abyss/overview/ (Accessed on 11 August 2020).
Signe Dean (2017) MIT Has Developed Colour-Changing Tattoo Ink That Monitors Your Health in Real Time. Available at: https://www.sciencealert.com/mit-is-working-on-colour-changing-tattoo-ink-that-can-monitor-your-health-in-real-time (Accessed on 11 August 2020).
Vega, K. et al. (2017) The Dermal Abyss: Interfacing with the Skin by Tattooing Biosensors. ISWC '17, 11–15, 2017, Maui, Hawaii, USA. Available at: https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/yetisen/files/the_dermal_abyss.pdf (Accessed on 11 August 2020).
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