Every time I vacuum, it never ceases to amaze me the amount of hair and dust scattered around my apartment. The human body produces considerable amounts of waste, even if we are not always aware of it. Every day, the average adult sheds around 50 to 100 hairs from their head and loses up to 2.5 litres of fluids through urine, feces, and perspiration. Apart from our day-to-day routine, medical procedures generate anatomical waste, such as blood and organs. Furthermore, millions of people who sadly pass away each year are buried or cremated. Just like with plastics or food scraps, human-derived waste has a significant carbon footprint that we should strive to eliminate. We can apply the common principles of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, although it comes with many challenges. For instance, it is wholly unreasonable to ask people to reduce their daily bowel movements. This type of waste can also spread deadly diseases if mishandled. Nevertheless, if performed in a carefully controlled manner, we can find a new purpose to our bodily wastes.
“A safe and effective treatment is perhaps the ultimate goal of biomedical research, and we may not have to look further than ourselves for the answer.”
Getting ahead of the COVID-19 sh*t-storm
For epidemiologists and public health experts, the sewage system is like a gold mine. Since everyone has bowel movements, the city’s wastewater is a useful resource for monitoring community health trends, like Mycobacterium tuberculosis infections and the prevalence of opiate use. Moreover, an infected person sheds 105 to 1,012 viral particles per gram of fecal matter. This has especially been useful for tracking the waves of COVID19 and informing dynamic public health policies, such as masking requirements and indoor capacity limits. While this is not a strategy that will significantly reduce sewage, it is an illustration of how our bodies’ waste contains valuable information.
From bedside to benchtop
When it comes to deciphering the nuances of human diseases, research requires more than monitoring the general population. People are differentially impacted by illnesses and treatments due to heterogeneity in their genetic makeup and environmental exposures. This usually means studying patients at a cellular and molecular level, particularly at the site of disease. However, asking patients to donate tissues solely for research is unethical, as it would require potentially invasive procedures with minimal to no benefit for the patient. If the patient is already scheduled for a necessary medical procedure, then excess anatomical waste can be utilized by researchers with consent from the patients.
A primary source of human tissue for research comes from surgeries. For example, breast implant removals and revisions of patients with capsular contracture. This is a condition where fibrous scar tissue forms around the implant, which may cause chronic pain in severe cases. Researchers can analyze resected patient specimens under a microscope to determine if the type of implant correlates with scar tissue formation. Knowing this information will help improve the design of implants, and hopefully reduce the incidence of capsular contracture.
In situations where collecting material from the diseased site is not an option, peripheral material can be used instead. People with liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis or ovarian cancer may suffer from buildup of fluid in their abdomen caused by dysfunctional blood vessels. This fluid, also known as ascites, may have to be drained through a needle and discarded. Ascites is comprised of enzymes, immune cells, and
other factors that partially resemble the inflammatory environment of the diseased organ. Thus, researchers can take advantage of ascites in lieu of the actual organ to better understand the underlying pathology of these diseases.
Blood is another type of material that is useful in research, particularly for its serum and immune cell components. Since blood can be collected in large quantities, it is a useful tissue that allows for standardization over multiple experiments. Patients with hemachromatosis have excess iron stored mainly in red blood cells, and therefore undergo blood removals on a regular basis. These patients are a suitable alternative to finding healthy donors for blood, which often requires providing them with monetary incentives.
For humans; by humans
A safe and effective treatment is perhaps the ultimate goal of biomedical research, and we may not have to look further than ourselves for the answer. For one, organ transplants from deceased donors are undoubtedly lifesaving for many recipients. Sometimes, a cure can be derived from something less pleasant. Fecal microbiota transfer is a therapy approved for patients with recurrent C. difficile bacterial gut infections. Microbes and metabolites isolated from feces of healthy individuals can help re-establish a healthy gut community in these patients. Conceptually, this makes sense – if your bike helmet is split in half, it’s safer and more economical to take an extra one from your friend than to try and fix it.
The circular economy of human derived waste is unique because it is driven by compassion and selflessness. It is truly remarkable how many patients choose to contribute to research, even though it may not improve their medical prognosis. I hope that their bravery can inspire more healthy individuals to donate to the medically vulnerable, especially in ways that are simple and painless. By registering as an organ donor, you could save one of 1,400 Ontarians on the organ transplant waitlist. It can also be as easy as donating hair for medical wigs. Even if your contribution is more supportive than curative, patients may find comfort in knowing that someone cares for their wellbeing.
Diamonds form under stress
Sustainability may commonly be associated with environmentalism, but it is also an intersection of many other fields. Beyond reducing our carbon footprint, repurposing anatomical and bodily wastes has improved and saved many lives, either indirectly through research or directly as therapeutics. There are also major economical benefits to utilizing this waste instead of spending money on synthesizing drugs. Putting constraints on resources fosters creativity that can lead to revolutionary innovations. For that, sustainability is worth pursuing in any industry.
“Beyond reducing our carbon footprint, repurposing anatomical and bodily wastes has improved and saved many lives, either indirectly through research or directly as therapeutics.”
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(2021). Suppression of the fibrotic encapsulation of silicone implants by inhibiting the
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