Smart toilets seen as future real-time health monitoring tech

Toilets are currently used for disposing of human waste. But researchers see tremendous value in the metabolic information contained in urine as a source of real-time monitoring of peoples’ health.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Morgridge Institute for Research are working on a proof of principle for an integrated "smart toilet" system that could yield important metabolic data.

Researchers published results of an observational study in the journal Nature Digital Medicine, in which they collected urine samples from two research subjects over a 10-day period and analyzed the samples using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.

“Though our dataset is limited to two subjects, our analysis (also available through an interactive web-based visualization tool) provides an initial framework to monitor lifestyle factors, such as nutrition, drug metabolism, exercise, and sleep using urine metabolites,” state the authors, who note that urine also contains metabolic links to more than 600 human conditions, including cancer, diabetes and kidney disease.

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While the authors acknowledge that other studies have measured the concentrations of urine metabolites from larger populations over time with other physiological phenotypes, they contend that no other study has the “time resolution or smartphone data integration” that they present.

“Our aim was to explore this combination of smartphone and metabolomics data as a means to understand the biological consequences of lifestyle in real time,” according to researchers. “Taken together, our data suggest that urine analysis offers metabolic phenotypes that are both quantitative and highly personalized.”

Lead author Joshua Coon, the Thomas and Margaret Pyle Chair at the Morgridge Institute and UW-Madison professor of biomolecular chemistry and chemistry, says the next step is to develop a toilet that includes a portable mass spectrometer that can recognize the individual and process samples across a variety of subjects.

"We know in the lab we can make these measurements," observes Coon. "And we're pretty sure we can design a toilet that could sample urine. I think the real challenge is we're going to have to invest in the engineering to make this instrument simple enough and cheap enough. That's where this will either go far or not happen at all."

In addition, Coon sees future potential for smart toilets to be used for population health applications.

“If you had tens of thousands of users and you could correlate that data with health and lifestyle, you could then start to have real diagnostic capabilities," he adds.

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