EUREKA! NOISY GUTS
What do voracious bark weevils and the contents of your upset tummy have in common? On casual inspection, absolutely nothing. As Ian Connellan discovered, you have to listen carefully.
A data-nerd Nobel prizewinner and an engineer interested in beetles make a device that could solve an uncomforatble problem.
RECIPE FOR INVENTION: take one European, beetle-whispering master engineer with a passion for patents (that’s Adam Osseiran), add one maverick, Kalgoorlie-born, Nobel prize-winning gastroenterologist and self-confessed gadget freak (Barry Marshall) and stand well back.
“Over the years I’ve become a bit sceptical of things that were traditional in medicine, particularly aspects of the physical examination,” says Marshall.
“As a gastroenterologist I used to carry a stethoscope but used it about once every six months. It looked good in photographs – that was important. Everyone has a stethobecome scope in their pocket just to signal that they are a doctor. But in specialist practice, I don’t think I ever saw a patient who hadn’t already had an ultrasound, which is so much more efficient.”
“For me, this started with a student project in Switzerland,” explains Osseiran. “I had a paper published in 2007 about what was happening there – the trees were dying, they didn’t know why. They eventually found out it was a beetle that gets in under the bark.”
Roused by rising temperatures, the destructive bark beetle Ips typographus had a virtual yearround breeder, overrunning forests and killing more trees in the process. “So we developed a solution to listen to the trees,” says Osseiran. “To detect the insect before they kill them.”
Soon after, Osseiran moved to Perth and worked on a device to detect European house borer for the WA Department of Agriculture. A couple of Swiss students doing entomology research improved on the design, and a pest controller saw their work on the news. He wanted to be able to listen to termites in the earth before they
moved indoors and started eating away at your houses.
“He contacted me and said: ‘I challenge you to make it smaller’ … so we did. Then there were a few other articles about it and other people heard – I got calls from Japan and Canada.”
Marshall, meanwhile, is fascinated by all data, all the time, in all its forms, everywhere. On land (“In Detroit, the police had a microphone on every street corner and they could triangulate a gunshot in the city within 10 yards instantly and send the police in the right direction!”), in the air (“I read a great story about planes flying around over some place in Iraq, you know, listening, and whenever they got a noise they could pretty much track it to the exact location”), underwater (“The data comes in and with a supercomputer they recreate a 3D picture of the seabed down thousands of feet looking for subterranean oil deposits)… and even, it would seem, inside us.
“When Adam showed me these little boards – almost the size of calling cards – that you could use to search for termites, I think I was very receptive to the need for this,” says Marshall.
“Gastroenterologists spend half their time trying to figure out what’s wrong with people who apparently have nothing wrong with them, but they have abdominal pain. If all your tests are completely normal, but you still get abdominal pain, that’s called irritable bowel.”
According to Marshall, we’re making noises all the time. “Usually when you’re standing next to someone you won’t hear their intestinal noises. If they’re hungry or they’ve had a cup of coffee they’ll be louder, they’ll be coming from the stomach. But the location, the site of the contractions, the length of the silence between contractions, high-pitched ones, low-pitched ones, mysterious little clicketty noises… there’s all kinds of information in there.
“I was thinking you should be able to do like seismic or geolocation of where the sound is coming from. You might be able to identify different illnesses, or separate things into broad groups, like benign or serious.”
Geolocation of noisy guts? There’s good idea.
Armed with a $1 million Mccusker Charitable Foundation grant for the Noisy Guts Project, Osseiran helped Marshall select the smartest Phd-hunting engineers at University of WA. “That went on for a couple of years,” says Marshall, “and we ended up with a little box.”
It’s incorporated into “a nice-looking belt the patients wear, with four microphones listening and recording on critical parts of the body”, Osseiran explains. Data collected from healthy and non-healthy patients served to “train” the belt, “and eventually we can easily train it up to 90% accuracy – that a person is healthy, or the person has IBS.”
Noisy Guts won a WA Innovator of the Year award in 2018.
“Gastrointestinal investigations probably cost the Australian health system $1 billion a year,” says Marshall. “If you can take 10% of that off by having a smart, non-invasive acoustic belt, that would be pretty valuable for everybody.”
Noisy Guts is now an early stage med-tech company, combining engineering, AI and medical innovation. It’s currently in capital-raising phase to mass-produce the first acoustic device that non-invasively diagnoses and monitors common gut conditions – all from a talk about termites. Who’d have thought it? Marshall and Osseiran, of course.
You should be able to do geolocation of where the sound comes from and identify different illnesses