Is It Cancer? Check Your Ink

Mouse tattoos
Calcium detecting tattoos in mice

In recent years increased research has been done on the medical applications of tattoos, they have proven effective in delivering drugs, administering vaccines, and working as blood sugar level sensors in conjunction with skin based electronics. New research out of Switzerland, published in Science, has essentially invented a tattoo that can detect cancer. The tattoo “ink” is injected under the skin, and only becomes visible when it detects elevated calcium levels in the blood, an indicator of breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, and more.

 

The procedure was developed and demonstrated in mice using reprogrammed calcium detecting cells to produce melanin, a black pigment which color moles and freckles. Thus the tattoo would be invisible when administered, but would appear as a large black dot if blood calcium levels became consistently elevated, as in many types of cancer. Perhaps the greatest difficulty in cancer treatment is diagnosis; by the time a patient notices symptoms and seeks medical attention, the disease may have already begun to grow aggressively. By administering these dormant monitors in people, particularly those at a high risk, cancer can be detected as soon as physiological changes begin.

 

The tattoo ink is actually made from calcium detecting cells that humans use to regulate calcium in the blood. Calcium is an essential compound for maintaining functions like cell growth, cell death, cell movement and more. But its concentration is precisely regulated, if there is too little the bone marrow will produce more, if there is too much, the bones will stop producing it. So when calcium does become elevated it is usually corrected in a few minutes. But certain cancers can inhibit the hormone that acts to regulate calcium production, and so calcium levels remain consistently elevated.

 

Though there are other pathologies that can cause elevated calcium levels, the tattoo worked well in mice to detect certain cancers before they became symptomatic. It has also been shown to be resilient to short term fluctuations in blood calcium levels and would be especially useful for patients who display risk factors for these cancers such as those with a diagnosed parent, a history of smoking, or work in hazardous environments.

 

But even if it is best used in niche applications, this represents a dramatic shift towards an entirely new field of diagnostic tests. Human beings can already have their DNA analyzed and identified for specific disease risk factors, if similar tattoos can be created for Celiac Disease, Parkinsons, Alzheimers, and the rest, then medical attention can be sought and treatment strategies implemented when the disease has only just taken hold, when it is at its most treatable.

 

Tastanova A, Folcher M, Müller M, Camenisch G, Ponti A, et al., (2018) Synthetic biology-based cellular biomedical tattoo for detection of hypercalcemia associated with cancer. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aap8562

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