Scientists have begun a search for the Holy Grail of bowel disease – the bagless stoma.

The magical valve – resembling a flashing belly button - would revolutionise the way people live with a stoma (or colostomy bag).

It would also provide untold relief to tens of thousands of people who currently face having a stoma bag attached to their stomach for the rest of their lives.

The would-be inventor is Dr Carlo Seneci from King’s College London whose PhD subject was the design and manufacture of surgical robots.

His latest research is supported by the Patient and Public Involvement programme of the charity Bowel & Cancer Research and is funded by King’s College London.

Under the guidance of Christine Norton, Professor of Clinical Nursing Research at UCL, Dr Seneci has come up with a 5cm wide plastic valve using a 3-D printer which looks like something from a plumber’s tool box. 

The idea is that it will be implanted into the abdomen. An array of smart sensors and flashing lights will warn the wearer when it is full. A clip-on tap will enable the wearer to empty the contents when they choose.

More than 100,000 people in the UK live with a stoma and 13,000 people every year undergo stoma surgery.

Most have had bowel cancer. Others suffer from Inflammatory Bowel Disease, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis for which there is no cure.

Some live happily with a stoma bag. Most would love to be able to live without it.

Stoma surgery is a way of diverting waste from the digestive system into a bag on the outside of the body. The surgery is used to treat cancer and abdominal trauma, as well as Inflammatory Bowel Disease, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis for which there is no cure.

While stoma surgery is often life-saving, emptying and changing the bag and ensuring it doesn’t leak or move out of place can be inconvenient. It leaves many patients reluctant to exercise, socialise or work.

Ostomate Lesley Booth, 58, who was fitted with a bag in 2016, said having a tap and an electronic belly button would be close to a miracle.

“Having a stoma is like living with a hot water bottle strapped to your front which fills up constantly,” she said. “When you roll over at night, the whole thing squidges and gurgles.

“To be able to not worry that it might pop or leak, to wear clothes that aren’t smocks, and to feel sexy again would be life-changing.

“It would mean I was in control. I’d get my body shape back. When travelling, I’d feel more normal than someone wearing a bulging bag which could leak at any time.”

Professor Norton said the bionic belly button research is in its early stages.

“We don’t know if we can make this work – our early prototype is still a long way down the line. But it’s a start. We have seven stoma-wearers helping to define the basic requirements and there is lots of enthusiasm for the concept,” she said.

We want it to be smart, easy to empty and able to vent gas. Some patients have requested a tattoo to hide what will look a bit like a flashing belly button.

“If we have proof of concept and a proper prototype when the money runs out, we’ll seek further funding for something which has the potential to transform the lives of thousands of people.” 

Dr Carlo Seneci added: “It is a great privilege to work in a field that allows you to directly help people if your research is successful. We have a fantastic multidisciplinary team of people with experience in medicine, nursing and engineering.

Together with the support and enthusiasm of Bowel & Cancer Research and their patient groups we hope to be able to help thousands of people with our device.”

A spokesperson for Bowel & Cancer Research said: “Living with a stoma is a reality for many thousands of people with bowel disease. A stoma can be a life-saver and provide release from the misery and pain caused by chronic bowel disease but that’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of room for improvement in design and wearability.

We are therefore very proud to be supporting this research as part of our Patient and Public Involvement programme.

For more information on the research, contact Professor Christine Norton [email protected]