Science & Technology

The “Smart Toilet” Knows All

New technology analyzes urine to improve your health.

Illustration of high tech toilet

Spencer Walts

Wearable, smart technologies are transforming the ability to monitor and improve health, but a decidedly low-tech instrument — the humble toilet — may have the potential to outperform them all.

That’s the conclusion of a team of metabolism scientists at UW–Madison and the Morgridge Institute for Research that is working to put urine’s tremendous range of metabolic health information to work for personalized medicine.

Urine contains a virtual liquid history of an individual’s nutritional habits, exercise, medication use, sleep patterns, and other lifestyle choices. It also contains metabolic links to more than 600 human conditions, including major killers like cancer, diabetes, and kidney disease.

A pilot study suggested that frequent monitoring and testing of urine samples can provide useful real-time information about an individual’s health. So the team is now working on technology to make the collection process simple, accurate, and affordable: in other words, a “smart toilet.”

The toilet will incorporate a portable mass spectrometer to recognize individual users. The researchers plan to install it in their building — the Biotechnology Center — and incorporate a user group of a dozen or more subjects.

Urine tests could show how an individual metabolizes certain types of prescription drugs in ways that are healthy or dangerous. They would also indicate whether people are taking medications properly.

The smart toilet could be a major step for population health, according to Joshua Coon, a UW professor of chemistry and biomolecular chemistry. “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,” Coon says, adding that it might provide early warning of viral or bacterial outbreaks.

Published in the Spring 2020 issue


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