STAT, June 26, 2018
Justin Chen

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The French novelist Victor Hugo described the sewage system as “the consciousness of the city,” a place where there are no secrets. Transporting millions of gallons of wastewater, the sewer contains a record of the public’s health and the substances it consumes.

Today, science has made possible what Hugo could not have fathomed in his day: water-sampling robots placed at strategic points in a sewer system and capable of delivering ever-more precise information about a community’s health.

As the country confronts an opioid crisis that kills more than 60,000 American each year, one Cambridge, Mass.-based company is hoping that it can use that kind of technology to measure traces of the drugs in sewers. Doing so, according to the firm, Biobot Analytics, could help to reveal remarkably detailed patterns of drug use — and give communities a powerful tool to detect emerging public health threats.

“Our goal,” said Newsha Ghaeli, one of the company’s co-founders, “is to transform sewers into public health observatories.”

The question is whether communities are ready to reveal their own secrets. Researchers, using wastewater-based epidemiology, would effectively be treating sewage as a collective urine and stool sample, made available willingly or not by everyone who uses a toilet. And by looking for the specific molecules that are found when opioids pass through the human body, it would be possible to distinguish between drugs that are flushed down a toilet and those that were ingested.  

“It really comes down to finding a city that wants to know about what’s in their sewer,” said Daniel Burgard, professor and chair of the chemistry department at the University of Puget Sound. [...]

addiction biotechnology pharmaceuticals privacy public health