Wearable, smart technologies are transforming the ability to monitor and improve health, but a decidedly low-tech commodity — the humble toilet — may have the potential to outperform them all, a new study suggests.
The Coon Research Group is designing a toilet that will incorporate a portable mass spectrometer that can recognise the individual and process samples across a variety of subjects.
Coon also believes the “smart toilet” concept could have major population health implications .
For the study, published in the journal Nature Digital Medicine, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Morgridge Institute for Research are working to put the tremendous range of metabolic health information contained in urine to work for personalised medicine.
“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,” said study lead author Joshua Coon.
Urine contains a virtual liquid history of an individual’s nutritional habits, exercise, medication use, sleep patterns and other lifestyle choices.
Urine also contains metabolic links to more than 600 human conditions, including some of the major killers such as cancer, diabetes and kidney disease.
For the study, two research subjects consistently collected all urine samples over a 10-day period, submitted those samples for tests with both gas chromatography and mass spectrometry for a complete readout of metabolic signatures.
The two subjects also happen to be lead authors on the paper– Joshua Coon and Ian Miller. However, the sample size used in the study is too small.
Collectively they provided 110 samples over the 10-day period, and also used wearable technology to track heart rates and steps, calorie consumption and sleep patterns.
The samples do indeed contain a remarkable health fingerprint that follows the ebbs and flows of daily life.
For example, the subjects kept records of coffee and alcohol consumption, and the biomarkers with a known connection to both those drinks were abundantly measured.
One subject took acetaminophen, which was measured in urine by a spike in ion intensity.
The metabolic outputs from exercise and sleep could also be measured with precision.
While the pilot experiment didn’t examine health questions, many possibilities exist.
For example, testing could show how an individual metabolises certain types of prescription drugs, in ways that could be healthy or dangerous.
Also, as the population gets older with more stay-at-home care, urine tests would indicate whether medications are being taken properly and are having their intended effect.
“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, it might provide early warning of viral or bacterial outbreaks,” Coon said.