How do tattoos relate to nanoparticles and selective inhibition of immune cells? And could this association be applied to a person diagnosed with an autoimmune disease? A recent partnership between Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine—in which scientists at Baylor worked with antioxidant nanoparticles created at Rice—seeks to answer these questions.

Autoimmune diseases have the power to deftly weaken an individual’s immune system because a person’s T lymphocyte cells can no longer distinguish between normal cells and invading ones, and will subsequently attack both. But Baylor scientists have found a way to circumvent these faulty T cells: using nanoparticles modified with polyethylene glycol (an organic compound made up of ethers1), the scientists succeeded in inhibiting the function of defective T cells. This treatment leaves the rest of the individual’s immune system intact because other immune cells, like macrophages, did not recognize the nanoparticles and as a result, their functions remained active.

Baylor scientists have found a way to circumvent these faulty T cells

The scientists at Baylor then worked with nanoparticles that combine polyethylene glycol with hydrophilic carbon clusters (called PEG-HCCs). PEG-HCCs are especially effective in detecting superoxide molecules, which signal T cells to become activated; PEG-HCCs can also remove superoxide molecules from T cells to prevent activation.2 A testing of a sample of PEG-HCCs showed that like the modified nanoparticles, the PEG-HCCs only affect T lymphocyte cells.

To actually inject the PEG-HCCs into patients, scientists placed the particles right underneath the skin. According to Christine Beeton, one of the scientists at Baylor, “PEG-HCCs can be administered for slow release and don’t stay in the system for long. This gives us much better control over the circulating half-life.” The nanoparticles dispersed within a few days after uptake—long enough to be effective, but not so long that they couldn’t be removed if needed.2

The ability to selectively inhibit one cell over another through the use of nanoparticles provides exciting new possibilities for medical treatment. Scientists could use nanoparticles to deliver cancer drugs to tumors, or decrease the superoxide overproduction caused by traumatic brain injuries.3

The only evidence of such a treatment would be a temporary but visible spot where the nanoparticles were injected. There are two possible courses of action: either the nanoparticles are injected in an area that is not usually seen, or scientists can use micropattern needles and actually shape where the nanoparticles are injected. This sort of “tattoo therapy” can lessen the stress and apprehension that may accompany treatment for autoimmune diseases and instead, become a creative outlet for patients.


  1. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. Polyether. (accessed 10/26/16), part of Encyclopædia Brittanica.

  2. Gutierrez, Graciela. Tattoo therapy could ease chronic disease; skin-embedded nanoparticles may help control autoimmune diseases. (accessed 10/27/16), part of Baylor College of Medicine.

  3. Williams, Mike. Tattoo therapy could ease chronic disease. (accessed 10/27/16), part of Rice University News & Media.