Glucose Tattoos: Could They Work for You?

Multiple finger pricks are all part of the daily routine for people with type 1 diabetes, who must keep a close watch over their blood sugar. The consequences of having the blood sugar drop too low are dangerous, even life threatening, and the downside of having high blood sugars are life-threatening complications down the line.

The methods already on the market to continuously monitor your glucose offer a way out of the tedious blood sugar testing routines because it lets the person with diabetes know if the blood sugars are headed up or down. But these methods are not effort-free. The tiny glucose sensor that is implanted right into the skin must be changed regularly, and it must be carefully calibrated on a regular basis, too.

Now a new, and very promising method, for monitoring blood sugar is in the works. Currently under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is essentially what is being called the glucose tattoo. When a special ink that contains carbon nanotubes, or nanoparticles, is injected under the skin, it can reflect infrared light back through the skin into a monitor that is worn externally. Blood sugar levels can be checked easily with the monitor, which is about the size of a small wrist watch.   

"Depending on the wave length reflected back from the carbon nanotubes, the person gets a reading on the blood sugar," explains Spyros Mezitis, MD, Ph.D., attending endocrinologist and clinical investigator at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "The technology must go through FDA approval before it is available."

The tattoo itself would be very small, about the size of a dime, says Harmeet Narula, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. "It might need to be changed every six months," she explains. "This is much more convenient than using the continuous glucose monitoring device, which needs to be changed every four to seven days."

If approved, the glucose tattoo could one day mean diabetics would not have to endure multiple daily finger pricks. There are many unknowns at this point about the new technology, Mezitis explains.

"Some areas of the skin may be more accurate for taking a reading," he says. "And how often would the ink need to be injected still needs to be determined. But the big advantage is that it would free the diabetic from blood sugar testing."

 Don't look for the glucose tattoo anytime soon: it's still being studied in animals, Narula says. But, she adds, "The concept is very appealing."