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, a Research Fellow at the University of Auckland’s 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 last night.
People who suffer chronic digestive conditions that cause constant nausea and illness have a brighter future because of Dr Du’s work. He uses computational and mathematical modelling to understand what happens to the food we eat, and the interactions between waves of electrical activity in the muscles of the intestinal wall and pacemaker cells to ensure essential nutrients can be absorbed.
Dr Du’s world-leading research involved mapping the bioelectrical waves of activity within the gastrointestinal tract to decipher the difference between healthy and abnormal activity as food moves through the body.
He developed flexible, disposable polymer strips embedded with electrodes and circuits to map the bioelectrical activity, transmitting the readings for reliable analysis.
“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,” he says. To validate the technology, Dr Du instigated human trials in the United States.
He and his research team of biomedical engineers and clinicians achieved another break-through in which the same gut activity can be monitored with electrode-carrying strips being placed on the body surface, 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,” says Dr Du. “It’s like an ECG for the gut, rather than the heart.”
Filtering out electrical activity from other organs and isolating gut activity for accurate recording was another major achievement.
Prototype manufacturing is underway and Dr Du says the first devices are almost ready for patient trials in ten medical centres around the world. A University of Auckland spin-out company, FlexiMap, was founded to manage commercialisation. It has patented the new technologies and is earning revenue from international clients.
Dr Du’s mathematical modelling is also feeding into an international collaborative programme to develop a virtual gut, paving the way for greater diagnostic techniques.
Patients with unexplained nausea, vomiting, bloating and difficulty holding down food cannot absorb nutrients, lose energy and become starved, causing a cascade of health complications. Greater understanding of intestinal activity could result in improved management and treatment of conditions such as diabetes and obesity and assist in the treatment of older patients suffering malnutrition.
As Dr Du says gut issues have social and economic implications through lost productivity, time off work, mental stress and the cost of numerous tests carried out to provide a diagnosis.
Dr Du intends to use the prize money to continue his research and to support student researchers in his team, which has more than tripled in size in the past decade – something, he says, reflects the importance and value of the work they are doing.
His advice to students, at all levels of science, is to see the big picture, be creative, be exposed to fuzzy, non-logical thinking 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