Printable, Temporary Tattoo-like Medical Sensors are Under Development

pulse-trace-163708_640There is a new high-energy action and suspense drama on NBC this year called Blindspot. The first episode began when a woman in left in a luggage bag in the middle of Times Square in New York with tattoos completely covering her and absolutely no memory of who she is or how she got there. She is taken in by the FBI who starts to analyze her tattoos and see if they can figure out who she was before her memory was intentionally destroyed. It turns out that the tattoos are puzzles that, once solved, start to lead a team of agents assigned to her to a series of dangerous criminal operations.

“Jane” as they call her, is quickly made a part of this FBI team because, without knowing why, she immediately exhibits professional level fighting and weapons skills. She is also highly motivated to find out her real identity and is starting to experience brief memory flashbacks. All sorts of subplots and machinations have begun to sprout up regarding her true identity and how she ended up in this dilemma.

So far, the show is doing well in the ratings. Imho, after four episodes it’s off to a compelling and creative start. I plan to keep watching it. (The only minor thing I don’t like about it is the way the production team is using the shaky cam so much it’s making me feel a bit seasick at times.)

The lead actress, Jamie Alexander, who plays Jane, is actually wearing just temporary tattoos on the show. While these cryptic designs are the main device to propel the fictional plots forward in each episode, back in the non-fictional real world temporary tattoo-like devices are also currently being tested by researchers as medical sensors to gather patients’ biological data. This news adds a whole new meaning to the notion of medical application.

This advancement was reported in a most interesting article on Smithsonian.com, posted on October 8, 2015 entitled Tiny, Tattoo-Like Wearables Could Monitor Your Health, by Heather Hansman. I will summarize and annotate it in an effort to provide a, well, ink-ling about this story, and then pose some of my own questions.

Research and Development

This project, in a field called bio-integrated electronics, is being conducted at the University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering. The research team is being led by Professor Nanshu Lu (who received her Ph.D. from Harvard).  Her team’s experimental patch is currently being applied to test heart rates and blood oxygen levels.

When Dr. Lu and her team were investigating the possibility of creating these “tattoo-like wearables”, their main concern was the manufacturing process, not the sensors themselves because there were many already available. Instead, they focused upon creating these devices to be both disposable and inexpensive. Prior attempts elsewhere had proven to be more “expensive and time-consuming”.

This led them to pursue the use of  3D printing . (These four Subway Fold posts cover other applications of this technology.) They devised a means to print out “patterns on a sheet of metal instead of forming the electronics in a mold”. They easily found the type of metal material for this purpose in a hardware store. Essentially, the patterns were cut into it rather than removed from it. Next, this electronic component was “transfer printed onto medical tape or tattoo adhesive”. Altogether, it is about the size of a credit card. (There is a picture of one at the top of the article on Smithsonian.com linked above.)

The entire printing process takes about 20 minutes and can be done without the use of a dedicated lab. Dr. Lu is working to get the cost of each patch down to around $1.

Current Objectives

The teams further objective is to “integrate multiple sensors and antenna” into the patches in order to capture vital signs and wirelessly transmit them to doctors’ and patient’s computing devices.  They can be used to measure a patient’s:

One of the remaining issues to mass producing the patches is making them wireless using Bluetooth or near field communication (NFC) technology. At this point, chip producers have not made any commitments to make such chips small enough. Nonetheless, Dr. Lu and her team are working on creating their own chip which they expect will be about the size of a coin.

My Questions

  • Could this sensor be adapted to measure blood glucose levels? (See a similar line of research and development covered in the June 27, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Medical Researchers are Developing a “Smart Insulin Patch”.)
  • Could this sensor be adapted to improve upon the traditional patch test for allergies?
  • Could this sensor be adapted for usage in non-vital sign data for biofeedback therapies?
  • Would adding some artwork to these patches make them aesthetically more pleasing and thus perhaps more acceptable to patients?
  • Could this sensor be further developed to capture multiple types of medical data?
  • Are these sensors being secured in such a manner to protect the patients’ privacy and from any possible tampering?
  • Could the production team of Blindspot please take it easy already with the shaky cam?

Smart Dust: Specialized Computers Fabricated to Be Smaller Than a Single Grain of Rice

4411505290_6552fdce8b_z

“Sabotage #4: Mixing Noodles with Rice”, Image by Stefan

Back in 1977, Steve Martin put out a live album of his stand-up comedy performances called Let’s Get Small. Included was one of his signature routines called Well, Excuse Me. It went on to sell more than a millions copies. Much of it was laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Now, 48 years later, when the Internet of Things (IoT) has becoming a burgeoning global phenomenon, some very imaginative people have taken this notion (in name only), and  in a way that could have never been foreseen in any manner back then.

Certainly no excuses needed here. Rather, let’s have a look at this exciting new development.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, led by Professor David Blaauw, have recently fabricated a functional and autonomous computer measuring only 1 millimeter on each side. This device, dubbed the Michigan Micro Mote (M^3), was the subject of a most interesting article by Rex Sakamoto on CNET.com entitled This Working Computer is Smaller Than a Grain of Rice, posted on April 6, 2015. I will summarize it, add some links and annotations, and pose a few questions. (The CNET article also contains an embedded video of a very informative recent report about this project on CBS News.)

This team’s work has been ongoing for more than ten years. With regards to the IoT, they believe that all of devices connected to it will require more “intelligence” and networking capabilities integrated into them whereby the M^3 could be the means to accomplish this.

The M^3’s current capabilities are photography and as temperature and pressure sensors. The researchers are now exploring a range of potential applications “ranging from medical to industrial” including:

  • Medical: How it can be “injected into the body” to take such temperature and pressure readings, as well as an electrocardiogram (EKG).
  • Energy: Assessing whether an existing oil well still contains any extractable reserves.
  • Consumer Goods: Attaching M^3s to everyday items such as keys and wallets to insure they are never lost inside or outside of the home.
  • Other potential apps on the project’s website include a platform containing “low-resolution imager, signal processing and memory, temperature sensor, on-board CMOS timer, wireless communication, battery, and solar energy harvesting that are all packaged in a 1mm3 volume through low-cost die stacking and encapsulation.”

In order to program and power up the M^3, the researchers created a means to accomplish this by using “strobing light at high frequency”. In turn, the M^3’s output is transmitted to an external computer by “conventional radio frequencies”.

The team’s current efforts involve reducing the size of the M^3 even further to a point where it may become the basis for a form of “smart dust“.

Just a few days ago in the April 10, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled The Next Wave in High Tech Material Science about metamaterials that can bend sound, light, radar and seismic waves, I speculated about some other potential applications for this emerging technology. With the M^3 so similar insofar as its originality and  potential to generate a myriad of applications not even considered yet,  my questions include:

  • Are there apps where the M^3 and metamaterials can be combined? What about in optical networks where metamaterials are using in the production of fiber cables where the M^3s could be used as sensors?
  • Would the M^3 make a via sensor for transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, rails and so on), as well as the bodies, engines and electronics in cars, planes and trains? How about embedding them into buildings for additional safety technologies?
  • What safety and privacy protocols and policies will need to be developed and by whom? How can they be enforced?