Fluorescent Tattoo Alert! MIT’s Latest Trick for Embedded Medical Sensors

The technology could have a huge impact on the process of diagnosing medical conditions.

microworm medical sensor

MIT is exploring embedded microworm biomedical sensors that detect medical conditions. And reading them could be as simple as shining a light on the skin and seeing the microworm tattoos glow.


A number of research efforts are underway to exploit micro-particle technology to sense medical conditions, but though there are significant benefits to the technology, the actual design of the system is problematic–nanoparticle and microparticle sensors can be swept away from where they’re supposed to be by normal body processes. Enter MIT and Northeastern University with a new variety of microparticle sensor that’s shaped like a long narrow tube–hence microworm–that is better at staying put in tissue and provides a greater surface area for chemical reactions. They’re also so small that the body is effectively unaware of their presence, and there are fewer of the rejection issues that can occur with larger embedded sensing devices.

Microworms are made in an intriguingly familiar way, all the more interesting because it all happens at such a small scale: A thick layer of pure aluminum oxide is etched to create millions of tiny pores in it, then a new layer of material is deposited on the oxide using chemical vapor deposition (one technology used in chip manufacturing). The new deposit finds its way into the tiny pores, coating the walls of each little tube with a shallow layer, and then the oxide is dissolved–leaving the new layer behind as millions of microscopic tubes. By filling the tubes with smart materials, and capping the tubes to trap these inside, all sorts of clever medical systems could be created–including next-generation drug delivery systems and biomedical sensors.

Researcher Karen Gleason notes that successful trials have been carried out by filling the tubes with a material that reacts to salt and injecting them beneath the skin of mice, but this is just the very early stages of the technology. Since the microworms are quite good at staying where they’re required–for example near a blood vessel–once injected, it should be possible to treat the worms to detect blood glucose levels: Diabetes sufferers may then merely have to illuminate their skin with a UV light and see if their injected microworm “tattoo” glows, indicating low or high glucose levels.

If the technology is swiftly perfected, and proves to be as useful as the early trials suggest it may be, it could enable super-swift diagnosis of a range of medical conditions. We may even see diagnosis in near real-time–by medical professionals, or even patients themselves, which reduces the reliance on central blood testing facilities and speeds up the time taken to work out what’s going on with a patient’s systems.

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