Distinguished Professor Peter Hunter wins the Rutherford Medal
Auckland Bioengineering Institute Director Professor Peter Hunter has won the prestigious Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s top science honour.
The Minister of Research, Science and Technology, Hon Dr Wayne Mapp, presented the medal to Professor Hunter last night at the Royal Society of New Zealand annual Science Honours Dinner in Auckland. Professor Hunter, a Distinguished Professor of Engineering Science, won the medal for his leading role in the Physiome Project, a major international project that aims to build sophisticated computer models of all the human body’s organs.
The Rutherford Medal recognises exceptional contributions to New Zealand science and technology by a person or group in any field of science, mathematics, social science, or technology.
“I’m very honoured to get the award, particularly when you look at the calibre of the past recipients,” says Professor Hunter. “It is also recognition of the role that engineers and mathematical scientists can play in biology.”
University of Auckland Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Jane Harding says that over the past 30 years, Peter has established himself as a leader in the rapidly developing field of computational physiology – a combination of mathematics, computer science, engineering and biology.
“This award acknowledges his outstanding leadership in advancing New Zealand biomedical science and engineering both at home and abroad,” she says.
Peter began working on the Physiome Project in 1996, after spending many years developing the world’s first anatomically based computer model of the human heart at The University of Auckland, a project which involved developing new ways of modelling the structure and function of heart tissue.
“The Physiome Project started off by looking at the heart, but it soon spread to the lungs, then the musculoskeletal system, and now all twelve organs in the human body,” says Professor Hunter. “The idea is to create mathematical models that link gene, protein, cell, tissue, organ and the whole body into one cohesive framework that will eventually become a web resource for diagnosing and treating patients, surgical planning, education and the design of medical devices.”
In 2001, Peter formed the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at The University of Auckland. Today the institute boasts 140 researchers, including 60 postgraduate students. The institute is working on all parts of the Physiome Project in close collaboration with the Maurice Wilkins Centre and the New Zealand Institute of Mathematics & its Applications, and with many international partners, including The University of Oxford and MIT.
“We’re still at the very early stages of the Physiome Project, but there are already many exciting applications. For example, Associate Professor Alistair Young of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute and Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences is applying the heart models to the clinical diagnosis of cardiac disease. The Marsden Fund and the Health Research Council have provided crucial support to the basic science aspects of the Physiome Project work, and the project’s musculoskeletal research, funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, has led to the formation of a spin-out company called eBonz Ltd.”
The United States has invested about $100 million in the Physiome Project to date and the European Commission has invested about $400 million. This investment will increase substantially over the next few years. “It’s very important that we keep New Zealand at the forefront of the project so that the country can reap the healthcare benefits and research opportunities that will flow from it.”
Professor Hunter says he owes an enormous debt of gratitude to many students, both past and present, and to his colleagues at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, especially Associate Professor Bruce Smaill who he has worked with for nearly thirty years. “Bruce has focused on the experimental side of the Heart Physiome Project, while I’ve specialised in the mathematical modelling. He’s been a key part of the project’s success.”
Peter is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Royal Society of London. This year he was also appointed Chair of the Marsden Fund Council, and won the academic research category of the World Class New Zealand Awards organised by Kea New Zealand and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.