A new Duke Bass Connections project hopes to bring our attention to the toilet.

Our feces and urine offer important information about our health, ranging from hydration levels to early traces of disease. However, manual collection of samples can be unpleasant, and analysis is often postponed until patients manifest other symptoms. The Duke “Smart Toilet” seeks to overcome this challenge by enabling hands-free collection of excreta samples.

Geoffrey Ginsburg, professor of medicine and director of the Duke Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine, partnered with the Duke University Center for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infection Disease (WaSH-AID) to form a newly-funded Bass Connections project team.

WaSH-AID works to create safe, effective and affordable sanitation systems in limited-resource environments. In these areas, effective waste treatment prevents human waste from entering waterways and spreading disease. 

The center runs decentralized waste treatment systems in India and South Africa, which became the basis for the “Smart Toilet” idea. Ginsburg saw promise in these systems for low-cost, noninvasive methods of collecting individualized biological data with potential for use in precision medicine. 

With funding from Bass Connections and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the group has already developed a prototype device with the capacity to collect excreta samples and interface to a standard toilet. The system is automated, so the user does not have to do anything extra—simply flushing will prompt data collection and analysis. The project hopes to make results accessible on mobile apps and digital health wearable devices. 

Sonia Grego, global field testing lead at WaSH-AID, presented the "Smart Toilet" as the next generation of precision health and wellness monitoring as popularized by Fitbit and similar devices.

"Fitbit measures all the parameters it can, but is missing the actual physiological samples," Grego said. "There is nothing to 'catch' [samples] right now, and you don’t want to catch them yourself."

Entrepreneurs and investors who see the potential of this project have already contacted the team. Along with personal health and wellness monitoring, the device could help improve early disease detection, monitor infectious diseases and study antibiotic resistance.

The team is looking for six to nine undergraduates with interests ranging from engineering to business and medical research to join the project next year.

“I know everyone says ‘we seek highly motivated individuals,’ but we do seek highly motivated individuals. This is a potentially disruptive technology," Grego said. "We don’t have much time to waste and we have a lot of work to do."