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Amazing Medical Discoveries

Grow-your-own organs, bionic eyes and more life-changing innovations

A Decade Away

Glucose-monitoring tattoos

You thought tattoos were just for punk rockers and Harley-Davidson fans? Think again. Heather Clark, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, has developed a tattoo that can monitor your blood sugar without constant needle pricks — a huge advancement for the 26 million Americans with diabetes.

The miniature tattoo — only a few millimeters in size — is made up of nanosensors: tiny polymer beads containing a yellow-orange dye that lights up when glucose levels are high and becomes darker as glucose levels drop. While traditional tattoos permanently stain the deeper layers of the skin, the diabetes tattoo is applied to more superficial skin layers, so its application is less painful and it wears off over time.

"The plan is to have tattoos applied once a week," says Clark. Patients will use a handheld device to scan the tattoo several times a day for color changes to guide their insulin use.

Clark's team has tracked glucose levels in tattooed mice with diabetes, confirming these results with blood tests they took at the same time. If upcoming clinical trials in humans pan out, the tattoos could be on the market in a decade.

Grow-your-own organs

The laboratory of Anthony Atala, M.D., looks like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. Human heart valves undulate in containers of filmy fluid. Bladder cells grow on baseball-shaped scaffolding. Strands of white muscle tissue contract in a lab dish.

Atala's lab, the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was the first to build functioning organs from scratch — bladders that were reconstructed in nine children whose own organs did not function properly. In those cases researchers built a biodegradable scaffolding shaped like a bladder, seeded it with bladder and muscle cells from the patient, and implanted it into the child's body. One of the children — now a college junior — was in kidney failure when he got his new bladder 10 years ago. He went on to become captain of his high school wrestling team.

The lab has since expanded its experiments to include more than 30 tissues and body parts. Last year the institute grew livers for the first time. Researchers washed ferret livers with a mild detergent to remove the animals' cells, leaving just the collagen matrix, then saturated the structures with human cells. Supplied with nutrients and oxygen in the lab's bioreactor, the 1-inch livers developed and appear to function like human livers.

The work promises to improve the outlook for the nearly 120,000 Americans — more than half of whom are 50 or older — who need replacement organs and tissues. Every day about 18 people die waiting for a transplant.

Growing the organs is a slow and painstaking process, and investigators also need to follow patients over time to confirm the organs' safety and durability. It will likely be a decade or more before these bioengineered organs are commonplace, but Atala is committed: "I've made it my mission to get this technology to patients."

Beth Howard last wrote for AARP The Magazine about pain-fighting foods.

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