The human body is a great record keeper. The scars of old wounds are tattooed in his skin; the signs of past infections are preserved in the molecules of the immune system.
But when that history is translated into medical records written, things can get dicey fast. Any missing sheet of paper or incorrect data can increase a person’s risk of obtaining insufficient treatment — an especially pressing issue in low- and middle-income countries where health care services are often limited or unavailable.
Now, a team led by MIT scientists has come up with a groundbreaking idea that could write back into the arsenal of the body a legible history of vaccination. We claim that overcoming the record-keeping riddle of medicine could only require injecting patterns under the skin of invisible nanoparticles. Unlike QR codes, such templates can be scanned and interpreted via smartphones, so one day health care providers will be able to store and view past vaccines of patients without the need and hassle of external documents.
The tattoo-esque technology is still in the early stages of development, defined today in the journal Science Translational Medicine, and has not yet been tested in humans. Yet rat tests by the team show that these medical marks are both healthy and long-lasting and can be administered in combination with vaccines without losing effectiveness.
If the team’s research progresses, future efforts will focus on delivering the technology to children in low- and middle-income countries, where many still rely on paper cards or certificates to track their vaccination history. But other experts caution that both technical and ethical hurdles might stymie its implementation— including in places where new tools to combat the spread of disease are needed most.
“It is incredibly important from a health system and public health perspective to figure out how to keep better track of vaccination,” says Nancy Kass, bioethicist at the University of Johns Hopkins, who was not involved in the project. Yet injectable nanoparticles that expose a patient’s private information “could be ripe for misunderstandings and rumors,” she says. This is particularly true in all socioeconomic strata, including the United States, despite the complicated history of vaccination in nations.