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A new hydrogel uses holograms to warn you about your health


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The field of “holographic diagnostics” was pioneered just recently, and while it might sound like pure science fiction it is actually an extreme cost-saving measure that could change the way we monitor chronic diseases, and how we test for all kinds of harmful chemicals. Research conducted at the University of Cambridge was able to use a simple hydrogel laced with silver particles as an accurate, reusable indicator of a wide array of chemical situations. From monitoring glucose levels in the blood to stop-testing a shipment of drugs for counterfeit versions, this rather out-there innovation could provide some very real-world benefits.


One of the big problems for biological implants is signal transduction — in other words, even with a working sensor installed and running, it still needs to get that information back to the outside world. Wireless communication is unreliable and greedily eats through power supplies — but recent research has made real progress in using hydrogels as a sort of bio-compatible fiber optic cable, so implants can easily send signals to the surface of the skin. This innovation simplifies the pathway even further, removing the need for lasers to send the signal, and the need for computers to read it at the other end.

This new hydrogel concept uses a simple hydrogel that has been “impregnated” with silver nanoparticles. A specially developed treatment with a laser, just a single short burst upon manufacturing, aligns these silver particles in a three-dimensional hologram. When the hydrogel comes into contact with certain trigger substances (like glucose, or insulin) it will physically deform relative to the concentration of the chemical. So, a higher blood glucose level results in a more deformed gel — which naturally adjusts the color of the hologram.


This simple diagram shows where the silver particles come into play in creating the hologram.

This allows the hologram to have analog output of information. That is, it can display not just a binary yes-no on healthy blood glucose, but can slowly darken to let the user know when they are approaching unsafe levels. The system calls to mind the sorts of color-comparison charts used in litmus tests, though it could potentially have many more applications. Where litmus paper responds only to pH as the input, this hydrogel can be tuned to respond to a wide array of chemicals (and other pressures, including pH). The paper uses mostly pH experiments to prove its point, but blood glucose monitoring experiments are currently ongoing at Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

Still, we do have accurate, analog chemical testing devices already. What really sets this process apart is that the hydrogel can be manufactured in just a few seconds, and for a relative pittance. These gel devices could be useful at border crossings and truck-stops to verify the identity of a chemical or medical shipment, or give aid workers a cheap and disposable test for everything from disease to the purity of drinking water. If cheap and available enough, a version could even be used for things like testing recreational drugs for purity. In all, the team claims their technology can test the blood, breath, urine, saliva or tear fluid for virtually anything, from alcohol to hormones to drugs — or even bacteria.


No, not this kind of holographic diagnosis.

This tech combines quick response time with low cost and ease of use, which is the trio of virtues needed to have any hope of breaking into the mass market. The team is working on a preliminary smartphone-based solution for easy home monitoring. The team hastens to point out that their research is not meant to replace the family doctor, and indeed would most likely be deployed on a doctor’s request. Rather, they hope to allow patients an easy way to monitor health, one which could cut down on the endless, routine checkups that often clog doctors’ schedules.

The basic breakthrough here is in engineering a cheap and easily made substance that physically responds to any chemical pressures that we decide in advance. That’s a fundamental breakthrough, and one that could allow truly amazing innovations on a not-so-distant timescale.


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