It’s alive! These ‘living tattoos’ may someday monitor your health

From personal pizzas to rocket parts, there seem to be few limits to the things that can be 3D printed. Even living cells have been squeezed through these 21st-century tabletop machines.

And now, genetically engineered bacteria cells have been successfully 3D printed by a team of researchers at the Massachusettts Institute of Technology (MIT). Programmed to light up when in contact with certain stimuli, the new kind of living ink is layered to create three-dimensional and interactive structures that can signal the presence of specific compounds.

Led by MIT’s Xuanhe Zhao, the research team has dubbed their method “living tattoos,” which can be placed on surfaces where the network of cells respond to chemical stimuli and information from one end to the other.

“Our ‘living tattoos’ refer to a wearable thin film which contains the genetically programed bacteria cells in different patterns,” Zhao told Digital Trends. “The functional cells can detect chemical secretions from the skin, and potentially … monitor human health.”

The patches are arranged in a treelike pattern, in which each branch is coated with cells that are responsive to specific compounds. When the patch is placed on a surface such as skin, the branches light up where they are exposed to the same compound that they are coated in. The result is an easy-to-apply, wearable sensor with an interactive display that could help detect things like chemicals, pollutants, and temperature.

“We envision this technique can allow continuous point-of-care monitoring of biomarkers based on the living cell sensing,” Zhao said. “Together with some living cells that can release therapeutics, this technology provides a unique solution for the treatment of chronic, homeostasis-related diseases such as diabetes.”

Researchers have been exploring the possibility of building living tissue structures for decades. But by experimenting with hardy bacteria cells, rather than fragile mammalian cells, Zhao and his research partner Timothy Lu were able to create more durable structures.

“It is intriguing to envision a robust and personalized implant in which different cell types are programmed to monitor inflammatory biomarkers and release growth factors to promote angiogenesis,” Zhao said. “Further, new ingestible devices based on our 3D printing of living materials may be able to modulate the gut microbiota and treat microbe-mediated disease such as obesity and diabetes.”

A paper detailing the study was published this week in the journal Advanced Materials.

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