Smart Toilet Saves Vital Health Data from Getting Flushed

By Joyce Huang ’22

Some of the most important information about our health comes from an unexpected and decidedly icky source. Our daily excreta (yes, the feces and urine we flush away every day) can actually tell us a lot about our health and help us monitor our bodies for disease. However, our aversion to excreta (the “ick” factor) has made this type of specimen collection for health monitoring and testing quite difficult. This year, a Bass Connections team called Smart Toilet is working to change that.

Led by Geoff Ginsburg of the Duke Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine, and Sonia Grego and Katie Sellgren of Duke’s Center for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infectious Disease (WaSH-AID), the team has been hard at work developing prototypes of a “Smart Toilet,” which would enable the hands-free collection of waste that can be used for early disease detection and to test and monitor for infectious diseases.

Team leader, Sonia GregoTeam leader Sonia Grego at a Smart Toilet team meeting

The Smart Toilet team includes three graduate students and five undergraduates, each of whom is part of a subteam responsible for a component of the project. The engineering team handles prototyping and designing the model for the toilet; the biology team tests for pathogens in specimens; the business team interviews doctors and healthcare experts about the feasibility of implementing such a device in healthcare settings; and the regulatory team is exploring guidelines and requirements governing diagnostic innovations. 

To create their prototypes, the team has been working with low-cost plumbing supplies, like PVC pipes, in order to create a product that is affordable and easy to manufacture.

“People increasingly want to bridge the academic experience with researching, prototyping and bringing a product to market,” says Sellgren, who is the technical lead for the Smart Toilet program for WaSH-AID. “Being able to involve students in this process is really great because they get to experience the research process. Projects like this are likely the first time students are getting an experience where the outcome is uncertain, so there’s a learning curve for everyone. [Students’] motivation motivates me!”

Whole team picture Smart Toilet team at the Center for WaSH-AID (left to right: Vidhatri Subramanyam, Samarth Menta, Jacob Key, Claire Yin, Megan Richards, Katie Sellgren, Jackson McNabb, Kaivalya Powale)

“The big benefit of a Bass Connections project is the incorporation of direct project experience,” shares Megan Richards ’22, a Biomedical Engineering student working on the biological subteam. “This is really helpful for everyone, but especially for engineering students where project experience is prized very highly and is the biggest metric of your value as a job candidate. It can be rare to find these project experiences in classroom settings because classrooms are typically more content-heavy and learning-based.” She adds, “I think there’s a benefit in the interdisciplinary realm because you get a better scope of your entire project instead of just gaining x, y or z skill for your major. With this project, you’re getting exposure to hospital officials, doctors, real-world applications of your project and the hurdles that come with that.”

Megan Richards, team memberUndergraduate Megan Richards ’22 presenting to her team

This spring, members of the Smart Toilet team are working on their fourth model of the toilet prototype, which will have advanced capabilities to collect excreta samples and interface with a regular toilet. In addition to ensuring their prototype is effective, the team is also working to add inline sensor capabilities to the Smart Toilet.

Story originally published by Bass Connections on January 31, 2020.

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