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This Ring? It's An Insulin Patch

Designer Leah Heiss doesn't just want to make you look good. She wants you to feel good at the same time.

Heiss has been working with scientists and engineers to blend art and science into collections of therapeutic clothing and jewelry that in theory, if not yet practice, could personalize and beautify objects that may be daily necessities.

Her recent designs include a necklace-ring combo for storing and applying insulin patches, a stylized water bottle that filters arsenic for travelers, and electronically enhanced clothing that can transmit your heartbeat to a loved one.

"My interest is how you can augment things you love and cherish to do something else, give them extra functionalities," said Heiss, who is also a lecturer in interior design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Much of her work involves experimental prototypes for future or developing technologies, and Heiss hopes her designs will inspire scientists to think creatively and help the general public learn more about the possibilities of science.

Her designs have been exhibited in Australia and Europe in both technology and art forums.

Last year she won a residency with Nanotechnology Victoria, a research and development foundation for the commercialization of nanotechnology - the use of structures as small as molecules, or 1,000-times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Nanotechnology Victoria has access to dozens of projects that are being worked on around the country, and Heiss reviewed those with the aim of creating a design that could help scientists deliver their sometimes obscure or enigmatic products to consumers.

"Their scope needed to be focused on human well-being and they needed to be tangible, not particles that you couldn't do anything with," Heiss said.

She settled on two projects: tiny insulin patches for diabetics and a chemical that negates the effect of arsenic. Then, she set about to design user-friendly and aesthetically appealing structures, rather than clunky medical devices, to convey the science to the public.

And the result?

Heiss created a two-piece jewelry set for the transdermal insulin patches, which are in development in Australia, the United States and other countries. A silver vial which can be worn as a necklace or attached to a keychain carries a supply of the tiny patches and acts as an applicator to press them into the skin of the finger. A matching ring with a moveable panel holds the patch in place.

"An insulin device doesn't have to be a big, ugly medical device," Heiss said. "With this system, users don't have to carry around needles, they can have something they actually like to wear that is also useful. It's very subtle, it looks like a slightly strange piece of jewelry."

The patch is not a reality yet. It is still in clinical trials in Australia, and a few other companies around the world are testing similar ideas. When placed on the skin, the patch would provide a continuous low dose of insulin and negate the need for injecting the insulin by needles.

Heiss' jewelry, if it is to be used for medical purposes, would also have to undergo an official trial but neither Heiss nor Nanotechnology Victoria had immediate plans to market her work because it is still years before the patch could be in use.

Michelle Critchley, manager of therapeutic delivery at NanoVentures Australia, said the jewelry put a friendly face on how medications were administered.

"You can essentially wear your medication all day in a way that an outside person would not be able to identify that you were having any medical treatment," Critchley said.

She said working with Heiss brought a completely different perspective to the scientists.

"We have a large focus on research or technology, rather than making prototypes and thinking outside the square on how things will be used and how people will view that technology when it comes out to the market," Critchley said.

Heiss' second project focused on very small iron particles that have been proven to absorb and remove contaminants, such as arsenic, in water. Heiss and NanoVic developed a storage-filter package that could be used by travelers going to countries with high arsenic levels in their groundwater, such as Bangladesh or India.

A necklace holds the particles of mesoporous iron oxide and includes built-in tweezers to transfer it into a kidney bean-shaped, translucent water bottle that has a lid for drinking, a membrane system to filter out the arsenic and an electroluminescent cable that provides light at night.

As with the insulin jewelry, there are no immediate practical uses for the arsenic-water device as the iron particles are not available to the general public.

But Heiss said exploring nanotechnologies and new materials could "revolutionize the way we live."

Heiss has long been interested in bringing science into practical but aesthetically appealing uses to the layperson. Two years ago she developed "enabled apparel" - electronically enhanced garments that responded to the wearer's moods or actions.

One garment senses a nervous habit - touching your chest or folding your arms, for example - and alerts the wearer to their actions. Another blouse is equipped with sensors that detected the wearer's heartbeat and transmitted it via radio waves to another person.

"If you're separated by distance from someone you love, you could actually physically wear their heartbeat," Heiss said of the blouse.

Heiss is energized by the challenge of working with new materials and exploring how to deliver technological advances to the public.

"I think it's really important for artists and designers to push those boundaries and work with these materials," she said. "From a therapeutic point of view, it really humanizes these sorts of technologies," she said.

"I think that's my role, humanizing technologies and bringing it into something like an art gallery context where the layperson can say, 'Oh wow, I've got it."
By Tanalee Smith