Emerging Scientist Award for ABI researcher
18 March 2019
Dr Peng Du, who is leading the world with his development of devices that help in the fast, reliable diagnosis and treatment of gut problems, has won the Prime Minister’s 2018 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize.
The 33-year-old Senior Research Fellow at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Engineering Science received the prize, which awards him $200,000, from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a ceremony in Wellington yesterday.
Dr Du's work is likely to make a huge difference in the lives of people who suffer chronic digestive conditions that cause constant nausea and illness.
He uses a combination of experimental recording and mathematical modelling to understand what happens to the food we eat, and the interactions between waves of bioelectrical activity generated by the gut and its movements to ensure essential nutrients can be absorbed.
His world-leading research involved mapping the bioelectrical activity of the gastrointestinal tract to distinguish healthy from abnormal gut functions.
He developed flexible, disposable polymer strips embedded with electrodes and circuits to map the bioelectrical activity, transmitting the readings for reliable analysis during surgery.
“Recording the gut activity from multiple electrodes was our first key technology leap and we wanted to be sure the devices and technologies were transferable from the laboratory to a clinical environment,” says Dr Du.
To validate his team’s work, he took the technique overseas for further research in Europe, Asia and the United States.
Dr Du and his research team of biomedical engineers and clinicians achieved another break-through in which the same gut activity can be monitored with an array of electrodes being placed on the surface of the body, potentially eliminating the need for intrusive medical diagnostic procedures.
“If you can detect the electrical activity, you have a way to understand the contractions and gastric functions without resorting to invasive and expensive medical tests. It’s like an ECG for the gut rather than the heart.”
Prototype manufacturing is underway and Dr Du says the first devices are almost in place for patient trials in ten medical centres around the world. An Auckland Bioengineering Institute spin-out company, FlexiMap Ltd, was founded to manage commercialisation and intellectual property generated from the research.
Dr Du's mathematical modelling is also feeding into an international collaborative programme to develop a Virtual Gut, paving the way for better diagnostic techniques.
Patients with challenging digestive conditions have difficulty holding down food, cannot absorb nutrients and lose energy, causing a cascade of health complications. Greater understanding of the role of the gut bioelectrical activity will lead to improved management and treatment of these conditions.
Digestive conditions have social and economic implications through lost productivity, mental stress and the time and cost of diagnosis.
“I believe that, as scientists, we should not only publish in journals but we also need to engage the public and show them that what we are doing has real positive impact on their lives," says Dr Du.
He intends to use the prize money to continue his research and to support future researchers in his team, which has more than tripled in size in the past decade - something, he says, that reflects the importance and value of the work they are doing.
His advice to students, at all levels of science, is to be creative, and not be pigeon-holed into any specific discipline too early.
“Appreciate how your work impacts on society and be a lateral thinker,” he says.
Dr Du's work attracts significant research funding and he has previously been awarded a Marsden Fast Start Grant, a Rutherford Foundation New Zealand Post-Doctoral Fellowship and a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship.
Margo White I Media adviser
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