'Smart toilets' could one day analyse our urine for signs of disease

Bathroom interior with claw foot bathtub.
"Smart toilets" could one day monitor our urine for signs of disease. [Photo: Getty]

Fitbits and smartphones monitor everything from our step count and heart rate to how much shut eye we get. And now, a “smart toilet” could be the latest in at-home health technology.

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Scientists from University of Wisconsin-Madison are designing a WC that picks up on warning signs in a user’s urine.

Liquid waste contains markers linked to more than 600 “human conditions”, they claim.

These include cancer, infections and diabetes, as well as pregnancy, ovulation and how well a drug is broken down by the body.

To learn more about urine’s potential in spotting health concerns, two of the scientists provided samples over 10 days.

After screening the samples for health biomarkers, the team concluded urine contains “a remarkable health fingerprint that follows the ebbs and flows of daily life”.

For example, the scientists jotted down every coffee or glass of wine they consumed over the 10 days, which corresponded with markers in their urine.

One also took paracetamol, which showed up in his liquid waste.

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Off the back of the small study’s success, the scientists are developing a toilet with built-in technology that picks up on any markers.

This information could then be sent to a patient’s doctor.

“Imagine having prescription antibiotics delivered to your door before you even get a headache from the sinus infection you didn’t know you had,” co-lead author Dr Ian Miller wrote in npj Digital Medicine.

“Or the confidence you’d feel knowing every day multiple diagnostic markers of leukaemia, for which you have a family history of, are being expertly examined.”

Unlike blood or saliva, urine can be collected “continuously and passively without any changes in human behaviour,” he added.

The toilet will have to be able to single people out by differentiating their urine from other users’.

“We know in the lab we can make these measurements,” co-lead author Professor Joshua Coon said.

“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.”

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The laboratory technology used to spot markers in urine costs around $300,000 (£231,666).

Although pricey, the scientists insist portable devices are available for a tenth of the cost.

For the time being, they plan to put the toilet in the university, where it will be used by around a dozen people.

Although early days, the scientists believe the WC could one day assess how well a patient is responding to a prescription or even spot contagious bacteria ahead of an outbreak.

“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,” Professor Coon said.

While it may sound farfetched, tech giant Apple recently received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to alert users when their watch picks up on an irregular heart beat.

Despite the hurdles, the scientists are confident their smart toilet will one day “make its way into modern households”.

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