A biomedical tattoo that looks like a brown mole when it 'lights up' could alert its 'wearer' to early signs of cancer.
Recently, the media has been inundated with the news of "smart tattoos" — developed by researchers from Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.
They help to monitor health using biosensitive ink that changes color following the modifying composition of the body's interstitial fluid.
Now, Prof. Martin Fussenegger — of the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich in Switzerland — alongside a team of researchers, has developed the prototype of another such "tattoo" for a precise purpose: detecting the possible presence of cancerous cells early on.
Numerous types of cancer are diagnosed late, which diminishes the efficacy of treatment and might mean that people will likely not see positive long-term health outcomes.
"Early detection increases the chance of survival significantly," explains Prof. Fussenegger, adding:
"Nowadays," he continues, "people generally go to the doctor only when the tumor begins to cause problems. Unfortunately, by that point it is often too late."
Prof. Fussenegger and team believe that this situation might, in the future, be significantly improved by the specialized skin implant that they devised — which they call a "biomedical tattoo."
The researchers have conducted a feasibility study, in which they tested the efficacy and accuracy of their prototype on mice and on pig skin.
Their results, which so far have been promising, are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
How the implant works
At the earliest stages of cancer development, blood levels of calcium become super-elevated in a phenomenon known as "hypercalcemia." Studies have reported that 30 percent of individuals diagnosed with a form of cancer have an elevated calcium concentration in their systems.
The implant consists of a series of "genetic components" that are incorporated into body cells; once inserted under the skin, this implant is then able to monitor blood calcium levels.
Should these levels spike abnormally, melanin — which is the body's natural pigment — would then "flood" the genetically modified cells, giving them the appearance of a brown mole. Thus, the "wearer" would be alerted very early of any telling signs of cancer.
"An implant carrier should then see a doctor for further evaluation after the mole appears," Prof. Fussenegger says.
"The mole does not mean that the person is likely to die soon," he adds. To the contrary, the carrier should simply take it as an early sign that they may need to check their health status.
Also, the implant "is intended primarily for self-monitoring, making it very cost effective," as Prof. Fussenegger notes.
However, should a person not wish to be exposed to the potential stress that an artificial "mole" might "light up" anytime, and potentially signal cancer, they would have another option.
Prof. Fussenegger and colleagues have also developed an alternative implant style, wherein the colored marker of hypercalcemia only becomes visible under a special red light, similar to the "invisible ink" concept.
This means that the implant carrier would need a "regular check [that] could be carried out by their doctor," says Prof. Fussenegger.
Upcoming trials and tribulations
The tests conducted so far have confirmed that the implant is reliable as a diagnostic aid, but it does have some drawbacks. The main problem is that it does not have a long "shelf life," so it would have to be "updated" repeatedly.
"Encapsulated living cells last for about a year," notes Prof. Fussenegger, "according to other studies. After that, they must be inactivated and replaced."
Another catch is that this implant is, as yet, only an early prototype, and much more research is needed before it can be put to the test on humans. The road to making the biomedical tattoo available for use is long and laborious.
"Continued development and clinical trials in particular are laborious and expensive, which we as a research group cannot afford," explains Prof. Fussenegger, confessing that the overall research process could take over a decade to be completed.
But the wait and the effort, he adds, is definitely worth it, since this is a concept that could be adapted so that it can help to diagnose a plethora of different conditions — from neurodegenerative diseases to hormonal disorders — early on.