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Test Your Glucose Levels With Temporary Tattoos

Nanoresearchers have developed a wearable device that may allow diabetics to banish those awful finger-pricking monitors forever.

Photo courtesy the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Mere mention of “temporary tattoos” dredges up a certain nostalgia for most. There was a certain thrill in removing that damp washcloth after dabbing for 30 interminable seconds and carefully peeling back the paper to reveal a perfectly transferred tattoo (a glittering, technicolor Lisa Frank character, for me). There was also the stinging pain of having to scrub it off if your chosen area of application (usually my cheek or, just once, my forehead) wasn’t suitable for that day’s family function or piano recital.


At any rate, nanoresearchers at University of California, San Diego are now harnessing this childhood favorite in the name of medical advancement, developing a temporary tattoo that can measure a wearer’s glucose levels. This highly sensitive, easy to wear sensor is particularly encouraging for those afflicted with diabetes, who often have to check their glucose levels several times a day, usually by pricking a fingertip to nab a blood sample—a painful process which some diabetics prefer to avoid altogether, even in the face of potentially harmful repercussions. What’s more is that the tattoos are incredibly inexpensive, costing only around a few cents per device.

Developed and tested by graduate student Amay Bandodkar and a team of colleagues at the Jacobs School of Engineering’s Center for Wearable Sensors, the device, according to nano researchers, works like this: “A very mild electrical current applied to the skin for 10 minutes forces sodium ions in the fluid between skin cells to migrate toward the tattoo’s electrodes. These ions carry glucose molecules that are also found in the fluid. A sensor built into the tattoo then measures the strength of the electrical charge produced by the glucose to determine a person’s overall glucose levels.” Results published by the team in the Analytical Chemistry journal found that the device functioned just as well as a finger-stick monitor in detecting glucose levels in subjects.

While the device doesn’t currently provide the numerical readout necessary for wearers to check their own glucose levels, Bandodkar says it’s in development, and the hope is that the tattoo “will also eventually have Bluetooth capabilities to send this information directly to the patient’s doctor in real-time or store data in the cloud.” Additionally, if the device is used by large populations who suffer from diabetes, as they envision it could be, the team believes the data gathered by their temporary tattoos could prove useful in providing more insight into the causes and potential prevention of diabetes.