Cambridge University nanotech researchers are collaborating with a US insurer and other corporate players to explore the commercial potential of an intelligent loo which captures massive levels of key data in users’ urine that could be used to deliver timely and effective personalised medicines.
Early feedback suggests the invention installed in peoples’ homes could save patients and health authorities worldwide millions of pounds while ensuring the right drugs are given to individual patients at the right time – putting an end to the current hit and hope scenario.
The intelligent loo has been created by the NanoPhotonics Centre at Cavendish Laboratory and is being exhibited this week at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition.
Sensors installed in the toilet act as biomarkers which collect data that can be fed instantly back to an iPhone or laptop to a patient or their GP. The data can be collected far more frequently and in much greater mass than through spasmodic blood or urine samples taken by by GP surgeries in the UK or healthcare practitioners worldwide.
The technique can also measure the entire range of chemicals impacting on the body, how they may interact and – by dint of that – identify a pathway that hits an accurate target rather than a random one.
Some urine samples taken by GPs, for example, will measure glucose or insulin levels but not examine what other chemicals may be interacting with those or how they are impacting on individuals to explain why they have a certain condition. And without accurate data, specific treatments can rarely be administered.
With the Cambridge technology, a flow of lights depicts urine’s path through to the assembly of gold nanoparticles, which trap target molecules of interest.
The Illumination of gold nanoparticles shows the capture of the vibrational (Raman) signals used to identify the concentrations of neurotransmitters like dopamine or other molecules.
Professor Jeremy Baumberg, director of the NanoPhotonics Centre, said: “We have very little idea how well our body is doing on the inside – and particularly whether our brain is out of whack or our hormones unsettled.
“Personalised medicine offers the vision to track our health, but is currently limited to simple things like heart rate. What we really need is access to some of the important molecules circulating inside us, but so far this is too expensive to do in the home.
“Our intelligent toilet exhibit showcases a new way we can access this by checking crucial molecules of interest that flow out in our urine. Since these are only molecules only exist in tiny quantities, they first have to be sifted out and then ‘rattled’ with a laser.
“One current application for the system is towards better treatment of patients who suffer from depression, as no method exists to accurately determine the dosage of medication required. However, this could also be extended to other conditions such as problems in pregnancy and other disorders and, possibly, drug testing.”
The Cambridge research team working on the project now numbers around 35 and with what Prof Baumberg estimates to be an unrivalled capacity of around 1,000 researchers at Cambridge working on nanotechnology projects, there is a great opportunity for collaboration to refine the technology as the research progresses.
Prof Baumberg believes the whole world will benefit but says the US market where the cost of healthcare to private individuals is potentially enormous – often prohibitive – could be a major beneficiary of the technology.
Dr Giuliana Di Martino, group leader, Winton Advanced Research Fellow and Jesus College Postdoctoral Associate at the NanoPhotonics Centre, believes it could take several years to perfect the technology to a point where it can be confidently installed in homes around the world. But she believes the potential is unprecedented.
Dr Di Martino told Business Weekly: “There are several different elements involved in the collection of data through the sensors but they are all pieces of the same puzzle. And they are all designed to detect healthcare threats that could not previously be detected.
“One of the first things we had to study was peoples’ habits so we could deduce the most effective way to deploy our sensors. Everyone goes to the toilet once a day at least so an intelligent toilet that utilised these novel biomarkers presented itself as the most obvious approach to gathering the data effectively.
“We are unlocking new solutions to effective treatment of diseases and conditions with this technology. If you correctly identify the root of a health problem you can deliver the right treatment at the optimum time, which not only saves cost but also improves prospects for earlier diagnosis of conditions. Earlier diagnosis clearly improves the chances of accelerating a cure.”
Dr Di Martino compared the data collection device to a speedometer in a car. Just as consistent measurement of speed data can help drivers avoid breaking limits and so peg the cost of car insurance, so more accurate measurement of health issues can save costs to health authorities and individual patients who have to pay for prescriptions.