Doctors Want to Implant Color-changing Mole Tattoo to Detect Cancer

Updated | Scientists have developed a skin implant that would cause a biomedical tattoo of a mole to appear on the wearer's skin when it detects signs of cancer in the body.

As many cancers cause calcium levels in the blood to spike, cells inside the implant are designed to constantly check levels of the element in the wearer's body. A higher than normal level of calcium in the body would prompt the device to release melanin, causing a mole to appear on the skin. The researchers at ETH Zurich university in Switzerland have so far tested the device on human cells, on pig skin and in mice.

Cancers of the breast, colon, prostate, lung, gastrointestinal tract and blood can all cause calcium levels in the blood to rise, and the patch can therefore detect these in their early stages, according to the team.

The authors noted that the current system where medical treatment begins after subjective symptoms appear "may be too late for the most effective therapy."

A mock-up of a skin implant that could be used to detect the signs of cancer in a wearer's body. ETH Zurich

Worldwide, more than 14 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year. The disease accounts for around 15 percent of all deaths. In the U.S., lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men and women.

Martin Fussenegger, Professor at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich, told the Daily Telegraph that the implant could be available for use within a decade. This technology could be particularly useful for those who have a hereditary risk of developing cancer.

The researchers suggested that the implant could also diagnose other diseases linked to changes in calcium levels,including cognitive dysfunctions such as dementia, renal failure and conditions that cause an irregular heartbeat.

The study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The headline on this article has need updated to reflect that the implants are designed to detect all cancers, not specifically skin cancer.