Breaking the Skin: Some Thoughts on Nanotechnology

Many of us have seen Star Trek, where the doctor has this little handheld gadget that delivers medicine into your neck. It’s allegedly painless and harmless as long as you hold still. At least, that’s what the fictional dialog would have us believe. Well, this morning, in random conversation that often takes place around the front desk of First Wave Venture Center (http://firstwaveventurecenter.org), an idea was born. Probably not the first time anyone has ever thought about this, but new to us and fun to talk about.

The conversation evolved from acupuncture to an intern’s fear of needles to a story about a splinter. Somehow, we stumbled onto the concept of a blood sugar measurement kit. That prompted us to vamp about how much better it would be to extract blood for the measurement without the pin prick. Instead of thinking of a stiff metal tube that must penetrate the skin and the wall of a vein, maybe we could find another way to deliver medication or extract blood. Someone mentioned the idea of equipment inside the body that might interface with equipment outside the body to achieve the desired result.

To be clear, when I say “equipment,” I mean some man-made device implanted in the body.

I like the idea of nanotechnology embedded in my body if it’s painless, unobtrusive, and doesn’t require a recharge. If such a device could ease in the extraction of blood or delivery of medication, it’s worth any trivial irritation, especially for regular occasions. Diabetics would love to be able to test their blood sugar without pricking their finger several times a day. This all sounds great, and I can envision a surgical procedure for installation. Let’s take it one step further and challenge ourselves to do it with a device that only temporarily embeds itself in the body.

Imagine a spacefaring vessel docking at a station. (Trust me, this is going to make sense) There is typically an airlock umbilical mechanism that connects the two structures together in a way that allows people to move from one to the other without freezing and exploding in open space. The station literally reaches out to the docking ship, grabs ahold, and forces a fluid through the resulting sealed cavity. If we extend this metaphor, we might think of the station as the doctor’s gadget and the docking ship as the skin on your neck. As the surface of the gadget approaches your skin, it injects a mechanism into your skin, gently enough to leave skin undamaged, but firmly enough to transfer fluids. If we establish several of these conduits across the contact surface, we can increase the flow rate and reduce the impact of the device on the surrounding tissue. Then, once the desired amount of fluid transfers, the mechanism disengages and retracts from the skin, leaving no wound or evidence of the exchange.

We don’t yet know how to design the nanotechnology that might repeatably self-assemble and form a fluid transfer seal, nor how to protect the tissue from wear, nor how to convince the politicians that it’s safe and better than needles. Those challenges are for another day.

Endnote: special thanks to our intern, Holly Bishop, for indulging my crazy ramblings this morning, as I distracted her from her front desk duties and attempted to solve a nanobiology problem with an aerospace solution.