When devices can track every step we take and body parts are being made on 3-D printers, it seems oddly primitive that people with diabetes still have to poke their fingers every day to check the level of their blood sugar.
It’s not surprising that’s one of the big reasons many diabetes patients fall off the track when it comes to managing their conditions—they get tired of all the pin pricks.
But relief from sore finger tips appears to be on the way, in the form of a simple pleasure of childhood—the temporary tattoo. A research team at the University of California, San Diego has created a flexible sensor printed on thin tattoo paper that sticks to a person’s skin. Once attached, the strip’s electrodes generate a mild current for about 10 minutes after each meal.
That current draws glucose, carried through the body by positively-charged sodium ions, closer to the surface of the skin. By measuring how strong the charge is just under the skin, the sensor estimates how much glucose—the sugar that diabetics have trouble breaking down—is in the bloodstream.
A device called the GlucoWatch, approved by the FDA in 2001, operated by the same general principle, but it never caught on. The problem was that it caused skin irritations and often told people their blood sugar levels were higher than they actually were.
So far, the temporary tattoo has avoided those problems, in part because it uses a lower electrical current. Seven people between the ages of 20 and 40, who participated in a test, reported nothing more than a slight tingling when the tattoo was taking measurements. And those measurements, gathered after carb-rich meals of sodas and sandwiches, were very similar to blood sugar readings taken through traditional finger sticks.
Each tattoo lasts a day, before needing to be replaced. That may sound pretty inefficient, but the blood sugar sensor strips are inexpensive—only a few cents each, according to lead researcher Amay Bandodkar.
In its experimental stage, the temporary tattoo can’t provide the person wearing it with a numerical value of their blood sugar level. But the goal is to give the tattoo Bluetooth capabilities that will allow it to send the data directly to a mobile device or a doctor’s office.
The diabetes temporary tattoos will not be at your neighborhood drugstore any time soon. The San Diego research was done to create a proof of concept. Would the approach work, and how well? But based on the results, Bandodkar feels temporary tattoos could also be used to measure other compounds in the blood, such as medications or levels of alcohol.
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