Stanford scientist wins Ig Nobel Prize for disease-detecting “smart toilet”

Nov. 2, 2023, 12:43 a.m.

Former urology instructor Seung-min Park won an Ig Nobel prize for his work on the Precision Health toilet, a “smart toilet” device capable of detecting diseases from excreta. Park is an incoming faculty member at Nanyang Technological University.

The Ig Nobel Prize is a play on the word “ignoble” that also pays homage to the prestigious Nobel Prize. The prizes are awarded to projects that involve unconventional and humorous scientific advancements. 

“The thing is, I’m actually very happy [to receive the prize],” Park said, citing a desire to destigmatize public scientific discussion of human waste. He is working on a book chronicling the project entitled “The Throne Revolution: Smart Healthcare Innovation in Toilets.”

Smart toilets could be the latest addition to the smart home ecosystem by passively monitoring residents’ waste. The concept was initially put forth by Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, a professor and chair of radiology at Stanford who passed away from cancer in 2020. 

According to Park, the smart toilet is not a replacement for a doctor’s diagnosis, but is a screening tool to triage patients. 

In lieu of a regular loo, a patient will sit on or stand in front of the smart toilet. When a user releases excreta, an intricate system of cameras, sensors, computer vision and machine learning will capture and process data.

Marc Abrahams created the Ig Nobel Prize and is the Master of Ceremonies. He wrote that the smart toilet “is a below-the-gut-level solution to important problems AND it gives people important questions to think about — productively — while they do their daily business.”

According to Abrahams, Park was selected as an Ig winner after numerous nominations.

The smart toilet performs urinalysis and uroflowmetry. In urinalysis, the toilet deploys and retracts a strip that becomes soaked in urine. The strip is read for a colorimetric change, which can screen across 10 biomarkers to indicate presence of conditions like diabetes. Uroflowmetry captures details of urine flow such as flow rates and time elapsed, which is used in evaluation of urinary tract performance. It requires the placement of two cameras on the bowl, and this setup bogged down Park and his team when they considered seated users. Such users would have their genitalia completely exposed, so the team did not test uroflowmetry with them.

The smart toilet can also perform real time defecation analysis. A camera captures the stool as it falls into the commode, and during this time, it is characterized by categories like the Bristol Stool Form Scale and defecation duration.

But who is privy to the sensitive information collected by the toilet? Park said the device will be HIPAA-compliant, so only clinicians and users have access to the data. According to him, the device inherently protects users’ identities by not showing their genitalia, but only the excreta that falls.

Although Park and his collaborators underscore the potential of using data to enhance patient monitoring, “[t]here is a real risk to over-monitoring,” wrote Jessie Ge, a sixth-year urology resident, in an email to The Daily. Ge has offered clinical perspectives in the smart toilet project. According to her, excessive surveillance can be associated with patient anxiety and over-diagnosis.

Walter Park, an associate professor of medicine and gastroenterologist who has also been providing clinical perspectives, sees future versions of the smart toilet as being an “in-home laboratory that would eventually tell you when you should see a doctor.” 

A multitude of diseases stand to benefit from detection by the smart toilet. “I think the most immediate appeal is colon cancer because it is quite prevalent and [the colon] is the most proximal organ to the toilet,” Walter Park said. 

Cancer detection may not stop there. According to Walter Park, secretions from the pancreas, liver, stomach and even esophagus all pass through the intestine and can get excreted. Ergo in theory, cancer of any of these organs may be detectable from feces.

Urine may quite literally be liquid gold when it comes to disease detection, since according to Walter Park, it is a byproduct of blood filtration. Once urine detection becomes a reality, “you can measure potentially any cancer in a person’s body,” Park said.

The smart toilet will also lessen the onus for documentation by patients, leading to higher quality data, according to Ge. It will “help quantify information which previously could only be delivered subjectively by the patient,” such as urination frequency and volume, Ge wrote. 

The invention has predictably been the butt of many jokes. Seung-min Park said that, in January of 2022, “Stephen Colbert featured our technology as the worst of [Consumer Electronics Show (CES)] 2022,” when in fact, “we had never been to CES.” CES is an annual trade show held in Las Vegas that showcases new consumer electronics technologies.

Seung-min Park is working on broader applications with NASA, potentially to send smart toilets into space. Park says that since astronauts are subjected to more extreme living conditions of solar radiation and microgravity, smart toilets could help monitor their health.

For now, the technology will serve as more of a research tool, Ge wrote. It is important to discern “whether more frequent monitoring of the parameters measured by the smart toilet actually helps to improve [patient health] outcomes,” she wrote. 

Ge wrote that in the future, she “would love to see this technology primarily deployed to patients in more rural or remote areas,” making healthcare more accessible. Seung-min Park expects the system to cost $200 to $500.

Contact Sarayu at smpai918 ‘at’

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