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Sweat-analysing temporary tattoo could offer insights on health and disease

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A team of University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers has received an award to develop a new type of sweat monitor that can be applied to the skin just like a temporary tattoo.

The tattoos will assess the molecules present, such as cortisol, giving individuals better insight into their health and serve as a tool for researchers to discover new early indications of diseases.

Dmitry Kireev is research lead and assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

He said: “There are a lot of vital biomolecules that are present in sweat that we need to measure to really understand overall human performance and correlation to different diseases.”

For the initial research stage, Kireev will focus on measuring cortisol, a biomarker associated with stress, stroke, Cushing’s syndrome and the rare chronic condition, Addison’s disease.

However, he hopes to expand the technology to other compounds, such as glucose, lactate, female hormone oestrogen, inflammation markers and many more once the method has been established.

Kireev will use the two-year, nearly $200,000 (£157,000) Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) grant from the National Science Foundation to develop these graphene-based tattoos.

He said: “It’s almost entirely transparent, exceptionally conductive and it really goes into this perfect contact with the human skin.

“It’s imperceptibly self-adhesive—we don’t apply any adhesive, we literally transfer it on skin.”

Most existing methods for analysing sweat are time-consuming and labour-intensive, limiting them to a laboratory setting.

Kireev’s design is based on a method that is simple enough for the average person to use, not just trained clinicians.

The researcher said: “Current sweat analysis that’s typically done is in clinics is using liquid chromatography mass spectroscopy.

“These are all refrigerator-sized machines that are amazing—they could measure all your sweat—but you need to swab the sweat sample, store and analyse.

“The process is slow, and cost-ineffective.”

However, a device simple for an individual to use would open the possibilities for future research, Kireev said.

He added: “We want to have routine analysis [of these bio analytes] so we don’t only get information about people when they’re sick or when they have the problem, but before it happens.”

Kireev also noted that many people are interested in personally tracking their own health and this technology provides growth in the field of personalised healthcare.

For instance, cortisol impacts the circadian rhythm. If an individual can track their cortisol over the day, it may shed light on their sleep habits.

This work is the merger of two research tracks.

First, is the development of the graphene-based tattoo to function as a passive electrode, measuring electrical activity on the body.

Second, is research on rigid, graphene-based biosensors.

Kireev said: “Now, the idea is to combine these two technologies together, functionalising biomolecules on the graphene surface, and employing human skin and sweat as the intermediary.”

Image: Courtesy of Dmitry Kireev

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