Glowing microworms under the skin could monitor diabetes

They sound more unpleasant than the diseases they’re meant to monitor – tiny, glowing ‘microworms’ implanted under the skin.

But researchers at MIT and Northeastern say they could be used to give blood sugar readings for diabetics, or other biomedical information.

Their tube-shaped microparticles, unlike existing spherical versions, won’t be swept away from the initial site over time, they say. The tubes’ narrow width keeps their contents close to blood or body tissue, while their length keeps them anchored for months on end.

The nanoparticles are created by using chemical vapor deposition (CVD) to coat an aluminum oxide layer that’s been etched to contain tiny pores. Then, the coated material is dissolved away, leaving a series of hollow tubes where the pores used to be.

Before that, though, another material can be added that fluoresces in the presence of a specific chemical such as glucose. This means that when the ‘microworms’ are injected under the skin, they form a glowing tattoo that could be used to monitor diabetic patients.

“Tight control over glucose levels can help individuals stave off the devastating side-effects of diabetes – the number-one cause of kidney failure, blindness in adults, nervous system damage, and amputations,” says MIT chemical engineering professor Karen Gleason.

“In principle, this could open the way for avoiding blood tests, which need a central lab, expert nurses, extra time and extra costs. It could be done in a doctor’s office, or even at home,” says Professor Raoul Kopelman of the the University of Michigan. “It will also avoid complications for patients with ‘difficult’, or ‘used-up’ veins, patients on blood thinners, et cetera.”

However, he warns that there could be concerns about long-term toxicity and bio-elimination, as well as complications such as blood clots.