Published: April 4, 2023 By
Carson Bruns

Assistant Professor Carson Bruns has received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research that investigates how the art of tattooing can incorporate the latest advances in nanotechnology to improve human health.

The National Science Foundation CAREER Award recognizes exemplary faculty in the early stages of their career with awards given out over five consecutive years. Bruns’ award is for $605,000.

A faculty member of the ATLAS Institute and the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering, Bruns traces his research back to a realization that ordinary tattoo pigments – which have been implanted in human skin for millennia using the simplest of tools – are essentially nanoparticles. And yet the modern tools of nanotechnology have scarcely been brought to bear on the practice of tattooing.

With this funding, Bruns wants to help make the next generation of tattoos not only beautiful but functional, too.

“Many different nanoscale sensors and devices are now available,” said Bruns, “and the skin offers an optimal site for implanting them, especially when you consider how they might give us the ability to sense and monitor vital health factors.”

Bruns has already begun to develop these “smart” tattoos. One health risk Bruns is tackling in his lab is skin cancer. Despite widespread public education about the risks of UV exposure, cases continue to rise every year in the United States, driving the search for new prevention strategies.

Bruns’ unique contribution to this effort is a tattoo ink that is invisible unless exposed to UV light, when it turns blue. When the ink is used to tattoo a “solar freckle” on, say, an individual’s arm, then its appearance is a signal to reapply sunscreen, making the freckle disappear.

Working through Venture Partners—a CU Boulder office that helps commercialize faculty research and patents—Bruns and his former PhD Jess Butterfield co-founded HYPRSKN, a biotech company that will bring this and similar inventions to market. 

“Bruns brings a degree of playfulness and energy to all of his projects,” Butterfield said. “He leads by example and inspires everyone around him to be a better researcher, scientist and human.”

Another product from HYPRSKN is Magic Ink. “This is exciting for body artists,” said Bruns, “since you can selectively activate which parts of the tattoo to turn on and off, changing the design of it at your will.”

Bruns is also working on a “thermometer” tattoo that uses temperature-sensitive inks. If tattooed somewhere on the body not affected by external temperature fluctuations, such as the inside lip, a scale of colored bars could indicate whether one is running a fever. 

Although tattooing has been used safely for millennia, a major barrier to ushering in the next generation of “smart tattoos” is a lack of knowledge about their biocompatibility, which Bruns aims to change. “I want to lay the groundwork for scientists, so they can awaken to the benefits of nanoengineered skin implants,” he said.

With support from his NSF CAREER award, Bruns plans to create a library of nanoparticles with systematic variations in size, composition, surface chemistry, density and stiffness. He then plans to test how those variations impact factors like immunogenicity, toxicity and the tendency of the nanoparticles to migrate in the human body.

“For example, we want to see if larger, denser particles minimize migration,” said Bruns, “and if softer particles will be less pro-inflammatory by mimicking the mechanics of native tissue.”

Drawing from this store of knowledge, Bruns hopes to establish general guidelines that will ensure safety of both ordinary tattoo pigments and the next generation of “smart” tattoos.

Bruns also recognizes that his art-meets-science approach to research could help attract people who otherwise might not be interested in STEM fields. He plans to integrate research and teaching activities by offering a hands-on workshop called “Tattoo-a-Fruit,” which leads participants on an experiential journey from body art to biomedical research.

Bruns is one of six faculty members from the College of Engineering and Applied Science received NSF CAREER Awards in 2023.