A research project by students at MIT and Harvard shows promising results, and could lead to a fully-functioning biosensor tattoo ink that reliably indicates glucose levels.
The research has so far only been tested on pig skin, has not been subject to rigorous trials, and is still at a relatively early stage.
On 9 June 2017, the Dose Facebook page posted a meme claiming that a new kind of tattoo ink changes color based on blood sugar levels, providing a warning system for people with diabetes:
The post had been shared more than 300,000 times as of 28 June 2017, and we have received several inquiries about its veracity.
It is, indeed, based on real research that students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors are undertaking at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard Medical School.
The DermalAbyss project has not yet been tested on human skin, and is at the "proof of concept stage," according to a May 2017 report by the MIT Media Lab.
Traditional tattoo inks are replaced with biosensors whose colors change in response to variations in the interstitial fluid. It blends advances in biotechnology with traditional methods in tattoo artistry.
Interstitial fluid is a layer of fluid that surrounds cells within the body. Measuring the level of glucose (blood sugar) in the fluid is an important way for people with diabetes to keep their blood sugar at an appropriate level and avoid diabetic shock (severe hypoglycemia).
The ink changes color based on three different biochemical measures in the interstitial fluid: the pH level (acidity) changes the ink from pink to purple; the glucose level changes it from blue to brown; and the sodium and pH levels cause the ink light up at a higher intensity under ultraviolet light.
The MIT researchers are Katia Vega, Xin Liu, Viirj Kan and Nick Barry; those at Harvard include Ali Yetisen and Nan Jiang.
They theorize that the biosensors could eventually replace the current method commonly used by people with diabetes to test their glucose levels, which involves pricking the skin.
With DermalAbyss, we imagine the future where the painful procedure is replaced with a tattoo, of which the color [changes] from pink to purple based on the glucose levels. Thus, the user could monitor the color changes and the need of insulin.
However, the tattoo ink has so far only been tested on the skin of a dead pig, and the researchers say "there are currently no plans to develop DermalAbyss as a product or to pursue clinical trials."
So it's a little bit of a stretch to claim, as the Dose meme did, that the ink means "people with diabetes can monitor [their blood sugar] in real time."
This is the theory, and the project looks promising so far. But it's not yet at the stage where it can actually be used by people with diabetes.