It looks like an ordinary toilet but it is anything but. The "smart toilet" is the diagnostic tool of the future, equipped with cameras that take snapshots of the users and their waste, motion sensors to analyze what's inside the urine and stool samples, and software that automatically sends data to a secure, cloud-based system that can be easily accessed by your family doctor.
"It's a way of doing community surveillance. If there is a second wave of infections in the future, we'll know right away."
Using urine "dipstick tests" similar to the home pregnancy strips, the smart toilet can detect certain proteins, immune system biomarkers and blood cells that indicate the presence of such diseases as infections, bladder cancer, and kidney failure.
The rationale behind this invention is that some of the best ways of detecting what's going on in our bodies is by analyzing the substances we excrete every day, our sweat, urine, saliva and yes, our feces. Instead of getting sporadic snapshots from doctor's visits once or twice a year, the smart toilet provides continuous monitoring of our health 24/7, so we can catch the tell-tale molecular signature of illnesses at their earliest and most treatable stages. A brainchild of Stanford University researchers, they're now working to add a COVID-19 detection component to their suite of technologies—corona virus particles can be spotted in stool samples—and hope to have the system available within the year.
"We can connect the toilet system to cell phones so we'll know the results within 30 minutes," says Seung-min Park, a lead investigator on the research team that devised this technology and a senior research scientist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "The beauty of this technology is that it can continuously monitor even after this pandemic is over. It's a way of doing community surveillance. If there is a second wave of infections in the future, we'll know right away."
Experts believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the widespread acceptance of in-home diagnostic tools such as this. "Shock events" like pandemics can be catalysts for sweeping changes in society, history shows us. The Black Death marked the end of feudalism and ushered in the Renaissance while the aftershocks of the Great Depression and two world wars in the 20th century led to the social safety net of the New Deal and NATO and the European Union. COVID-19 could fundamentally alter the way we deliver healthcare, abandoning the outdated 20th century brick and mortar fee-for-service model in favor of digital medicine. At-home diagnostics may be the leading edge of this seismic shift and the pandemic could accelerate the product innovations that allow for home-based medical screening.
"That's the silver lining to this devastation," says Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing at the Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. As an interventional cardiologist, Saxon has spent her career devising and refining the implantable and wearable wireless devices that are used to treat and diagnose heart conditions and prevent sudden death. "This will open up innovation—research has been stymied by a lack of imagination and marriage to an antiquated model," she adds. "There are already signs this is happening—relaxing state laws about licensure, allowing physicians to deliver health care in non-traditional ways. That's a real sea change and will completely democratize medical information and diagnostic testing."
Ironically, diagnostics have long been a step-child of modern medicine, even though accurate and timely diagnostics play a crucial role in disease prevention, detection and management. "The delivery of health care has proceeded for decades with a blind spot: diagnostic errors—inaccurate or delayed diagnoses—persist throughout all settings of care and continue to harm an unacceptable number of patients," according to a 2015 National Academy of Medicine report. That same report found as many as one out of five adverse events in the hospital result from these errors and they contribute to 10 percent of all patient deaths.
The pandemic should alter the diagnostic landscape. We already have a wealth of wearable and implantable devices, like glucose sensors to monitor blood sugar levels for diabetics, Apple's smart watch, electrocardiogram devices that can detect heart arrythmias, and heart pacemakers.
The Food and Drug Administration is working closely with in-home test developers to make accurate COVID-19 diagnostic tools readily available and has so far greenlighted three at-home collection test kits. Two, LabCorp's and Everlywell's, use nasal swabs to take samples. The third one is a spit test, using saliva samples, that was devised by a Rutgers University laboratory in partnership with Spectrum Solutions and Accurate Diagnostic Labs.
The only way to safely reopen is through large scale testing, but hospitals and doctors' offices are no longer the safest places.
In fact, DIY diagnostic company Everlywell, an Austin, Texas- based digital health company, already offers more than 30 at-home kits for everything from fertility to food sensitivity tests. Typically, consumers collect a saliva or finger-prick blood sample, dispatch it in a pre-paid shipping envelope to a laboratory, and a physician will review the results and send a report to consumers' smartphones.
Thanks to advances in technology, samples taken at home can now be preserved long enough to arrive intact at diagnostic laboratories. The key is showing the agency "transport and shipping don't change or interfere with the integrity of the samples," says Dr. Frank Ong, Everlywell's chief medical and scientific officer.
Ong is keenly aware of the importance of saturation testing because of the lessons learned by colleagues fighting the SARS pandemic in his family's native Taiwan in 2003. "In the beginning, doctors didn't know what they were dealing with and didn't protect themselves adequately," he says. "But over two years, they learned the hard way that there needs to be enough testing, contact tracing of those who have been exposed, and isolation of people who test positive. The value of at-home testing is that it can be done on the kind of broad basis that needs to happen for our country to get back to work."
Because of the pandemic, new policies have removed some of the barriers that impeded the widespread adoption of home-based diagnostics and telemedicine. Physicians can now practice across state lines, get reimbursed for telemedicine visits and use FaceTime to communicate with their patients, which had long been considered taboo because of privacy issues. Doctors and patients are becoming more comfortable and realizing the convenience and benefits of being able to do these things virtually.
Added to this, the only way to safely reopen for business without triggering a second and perhaps even more deadly wave of sickness is through large-scale testing, but hospitals and doctors' offices are no longer the safest places. "We don't want people sitting in a waiting room who later find out they're positive, and potentially infected everyone, including doctors and nurses," says Dr. Kavita Patel, a physician in Washington, DC who served as a policy director in the Obama White House.
In-home testing avoids the risks of direct exposure to the virus for both patients and health care professionals, who can dispense with cumbersome protective gear to take samples, and also enables people without reliable transportation or child-care to learn their status. "At home testing can be a critical component of our country's overall testing strategy," says Dr. Shantanu Nundy, chief medical officer at Accolade Health and on the faculty of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. "Once we're back at work, we need to be much more targeted, and have much more access to data and controlling those outbreaks as tightly as possible. The best way to do that is by leapfrogging clinics and being able to deliver tests at home for people who are disenfranchised by the current system."
In the not-too-distant future, in-home diagnostics could be a key component of precision medicine, which is customized care tailored specifically to each patient's individual needs. Like Stanford's smart toilet prototype, these ongoing surveillance tools will gather health data, ranging from exposures to toxins and pollutions in the environment to biochemical activity, like rising blood pressure, signs of inflammation, failing kidneys or tiny cancerous tumors, and provide continuous real-time information.
"These can be deeply personalized and enabled by smart phones, sensors and artificial intelligence," says USC's Leslie Saxon. "We'll be seeing the floodgates opening to patients accessing medical services through the same devices that they access other things, and leveraging these tools for our health and to fine tune disease management in a model of care that is digitally enabled."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."