In Iron Man 2, our hero Tony Stark manages to save the world from the military-industrial complex and create an entirely new chemical element, but still suffers through the inconvenient and mildly painful tribulation of numerous pin-prick blood tests a day.
Draper Laboratories, right down the street from Stark’s alma mater, MIT, has a solution. A scientist at the lab has successfully demonstrated an implantable nanosensor that changes color as chemical concentrations fluctuate in the bloodstream.
Instead of the palladium levels Stark must monitor, Heather Clark tested a much more practical application for the nanosensor: Blood glucose levels. Her sensor can determine glucose levels in vitro and in mice without the necessity of a pin prick.
Clark inserts her polymer-based nanoparticles into shallow layers of the skin of mice, where device draws glucose from the blood into its core. A chemical reaction inside the particle causes it to fluoresce, with color changes indicating the concentration of glucose in the blood.
Clark then uses an iPhone-sized handheld device to shine a light on the particle, correlating the brightness of the 100-nanometer implant’s fluorescence to the amount of glucose in the blood.
Clark likens the device to a tattoo, albeit a of a far less painful sort. The device only goes into the outer layers of the skin, not deeper into the dermis as with tattoos, and is also not permanent.
“I always use the word tattoo, but not only is it not injected, it’s very small. It looks more like a mole on your arm, but it has a faint color to it,” Clark said. “It’s not bold and large, it’s very small and subtle.”
The nanosphere is a platform technology in that different chemicals can be inserted to read different levels of nutrients in the blood, she added. Her lab is researching a variety of sensors that can be used for different applications. The microscopic devices can measure chemicals such as sodium, potassium and chloride. Clark said the devices could potentially be used in athletes or military troops, where monitoring certain nutrient levels is vital to performance or survival.
“You could think of a runner or somebody in the military that might be concerned about dehydration. I always call it my nano-clinical analyzer in the arm,” she said, “because we could make such a wide array of these sensors. If you had small dots in your arm for all the clinical analytes you might want to take a blood draw for, it’s all right there.”
Asked if the lab was looking to commercialize the technology, Clark said the lab is interested in pursuing commercial partners but hasn’t yet made that move.