Worm-like Nanoparticles Could Be Planted Under Our Skin for Glucose Monitoring

In collaborative work between researchers at MIT and Northeastern University in Boston, MA a comparatively long and hollow nanoparticle has been developed that could be implanted under the skin and remain anchored at its original location to monitor levels of glucose or salt or other targets over time.

The work, which was initially published online last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, builds on the work of Karen Gleason, one of the lead researchers on this project, in using chemical vapor deposition (CVD) to create a coating with microscopic pores.

The breakthrough of the new nanoparticle, which is being called “microworms”, has to do with their shape. While spherical nanoparticle have been developed that could be filled with specific chemicals to detect various biomedical conditions and then implanted under the skin, they just wouldn’t stay where they were. They would get washed away.

To combat this, the research team developed tubes that were narrow enough to keep them more or less on the same dimensions as the spherical nanoparticles but were long enough in length so that they would better anchor to the location at which they were originally implanted.

Where this particular research seems a bit odd to me is in the area of its proposed applications. Now I try to remember Eric Drexler’s point in his blog late last year that scientists are held to two different standards when discussing applications to fellow scientists and then to lay people, but I can’t imagine these applications would be particularly attractive to lay people.

To copy and paste a bit the application proposals they go something like ‘microworms’ would “someday lead to implantable devices that would allow, for example, people with diabetes to check their blood sugar just by glancing at an area of skin.”

Now I’ve known people that had to regularly check their glucose levels, and this amounted to a pin prick of their finger and a drop of blood on test strip, then into the meter and voila. Pretty quick and pretty painless. But do I really want some area under my skin to reveal my glucose level? Seems kind of a long way to go for a fairly diminished return.

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IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY