A collaborative research team led by engineers at a Scottish university is designing a bowel sensor that could alert people when they need to go to the toilet.

Over 6.5m people in the UK have from some kind of bowel problem and around 1.5 per cent suffer from faecal incontinence – an inability to control bowel movements.

Dr Michael Crichton from Heriot-Watt University is leading the team, with researchers from the University of Stirling, the Glasgow School of Art, the University of Manchester and Sheffield Hallam University.

The 18-month project has been awarded £500,000 funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council. 

Dr Crichton said: “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.

“We’re designing a flexible sensor that could be mounted on the large intestine. It will measure how the tissue moves and strains during bowel movements, the actual mechanical 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.”

Dr Crichton’s team will work closely with patients and clinicians on the sensor and platform to ensure it meets their requirements. The concept of on-organ sensors is relatively new, and Crichton believes a working sensor could be 5-10 years off once they have proved the theory. 

“This is a new approach to organ monitoring. If we’re successful with developing a bowel sensor there’s no reason we couldn’t adapt it for other organs, illnesses and diseases.” 

UK government minister for Scotland Iain Stewart said: “As we build back better from the pandemic, the UK Government is dedicated to securing the country’s status as a science superpower.

“This innovative project from Heriot-Watt University is a great example of technology being used to enhance healthcare and ultimately improve people’s 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.”