High-Tech Ideas Come to Medicine and Improve It

Science is often more like science fiction, coming up with ideas that, when you first hear about them, sound implausible or even silly. But when you look into them, some of these new ideas are brilliant in their silliness, and amazing in their ability to improve our lives. From temporary tattoos or patches that stick to the skin and provide doctors or the patients themselves with real-time updates on their conditions to a nasal spray that takes the place of painful injections, here are a few recent examples of how science marches on.

Temporary tattoos that measure the pH value of your skin

Remember those temporary tattoos that you used to get when you were a kid? You’d find a design you liked, soak it in water for a few minutes, and voilà…you look like a sailor, with a tattoo of Popeye and his biceps gracing your own. Well, researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of California, San Diego have taken the idea of temporary tattoos and turned them into a useful medical diagnostic tool.

There are many medical conditions that require constant attention to patients’ pH values – whether their skin (and therefore their blood) is alkaline or acidic. Previously, when doctors needed to test pH values, they had to obtain samples of the patients’ saliva, urine, or blood, and then test them with strips of reagent paper. This was all time-consuming for the doctors and intrusive for the patients. So what the UT and UC researchers did was to create temporary tattoos that work exactly the way the ones you wore as a kid, except that they are impregnated with ion-selective electrodes – sensors that convert the activity of certain ions into an electrical potential that can be measured with a voltmeter. You place them on the patients’ skin, and the tattoos continuously detect the pH content of the patient’s sweat.

These new “smart tattoos” (unlike the temporary tattoos of our youth) are rugged enough not to wear off, and can withstand even heavy sweating. As a result, they are already being used to non-invasively test pH values of athletes while exercising. This is important, because when athletes are performing endurance sports, their bodies produce large amounts of lactic acid. In most people, this is eliminated quickly, but in other people it can produce adverse effects. Previous equipment used to test pH values was bulky, and couldn’t easily be used in such situations.

The new “pH tattoos” are cheap and easy to manufacture, and look a little like a smiley face, with “ears” that allow a connection to measurement devices for more precise analysis of pH values. They are also being tested while monitoring patients with Addison’s disease, which also requires constant attention to pH values.

If you don’t like “smart tattoos,” try wearing the “smart patch”

A similar approach was taken by developers at a company called Sano Intelligence, which has come up with a skin patch that tests glucose levels of a person’s blood without the need to draw any blood. You just apply the patch to your skin, just as you would apply a “stop smoking” patch, and it constantly monitors your glucose levels and sends them and your other vital signs wirelessly to a receiving mobile phone app.

The sensor-equipped transdermal patch is painless to apply and use, and can test potassium levels as well as glucose levels. Its output is compatible with most forms of blood diagnostic devices. Yet it costs only 1 to 2 dollars a patch, and lasts for up to seven days. To imagine its convenience for doctors, think about how much more time they could spend on healing if they didn’t have to spend so much time taking blood samples. To imagine this patch’s convenience for patients, think of yourself as a diabetic, now freed from the need to take blood samples every few hours. The device is currently undergoing pilot testing, and should be available by mid-2013.

Speaking of diabetics, how about an insulin nasal spray instead of an injection?

People with Type 1 diabetes not only have to test the glucose levels of their blood constantly, in many cases they have to give themselves injections of insulin several times a day as well. Well, a team of British scientists recently published research in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Biomaterials Science that may result in an end to those daily insulin injections.

They have developed a system that delivers insulin to the bloodstream just by squirting a spray into your nose. In animal tests, one squirt worked to reduce blood sugar levels in diabetic rats for over 24 hours (injected insulin allowed the rats’ blood sugar levels to rise again to dangerously high levels after only 9 hours). The secret seems to be that the nasal spray, once squirted into the nose, turns into a sticky gel that is not easily sneezed out, and that gives the spray a kind of “time release” effect.

While this spray still needs to be tested on human subjects, the researchers are hopeful, because their study may have paved the way for a once-a-day insulin treatment for diabetics. As study leader Dr. Hamde Nazar says, “Our data highlights the potential of the formulation as a once-a-day dosage form for the delivery of insulin through the nasal route.”

So as you see, science indeed continues to march on, inventing things that make life easier for both doctors and patients. Anything that makes medical testing and the dispensing of medication easier and less intrusive is a breakthrough indeed.

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