Leader of the project team, Herriot-Watt’s Dr Michael Crichton, explained that the flexible sensor could be mounted on the large intestine in order to measure how the tissue moves and strains during bowel movements.
“The sensor will track the stool as it moves through the body, and turn the data into an early warning system for the user,” said Crichton. “People’s lives are badly affected by faecal incontinence, and it’s compounded by the fact that few people feel comfortable or confident to talk about the issue.
“Discreet digital technologies could help people monitor and manage their bowel condition and have more active, confident lives.”
Crichton said that the sensor's design makes use of flexible electronics and flexible strain measurements in addition to audio measurements, allowing for identification of motion. The behaviour is then transmitted to an app for interpretation.
"Developing a technology that can be delivered in minimally invasive way and not interfere with the normal function of the organs is a big challenge," he commented. "By understanding the attachment surfaces and its movement, we can tailor the technology to minimise any risk of failure or adverse patient impact."
The team comprises researchers from Heriot-Watt, Manchester, Stirling and Sheffield Hallam Universities and the Glasgow School of Art.
The 18-month project has received £500,000 funding from the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and the Medical Research Council. It will involve close work with patients and clinicians on the sensor and platform to ensure it meets necessary requirements.
Bowel Research UK is also working alongside the team to help engage stakeholders in the technology, Crichton said, with next steps to include expanding on this in addition to planning the technology development and integration steps for the sensor and app.
If the new approach to organ monitoring is successful, Crichton believes it could also be applied to other organs and illnesses. A working sensor could be 5-10 years away following proof of concept, he added.
UK government minister for Scotland Iain Stewart said that the project is a great example of technology being used to enhance healthcare and ultimately improve lives.
Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, EPSRC executive chair, said: “Technologies and approaches pioneered by UK researchers have the potential to revolutionise treatment for a wide range of conditions, from bowel cancer to diabetes.”