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Winning researcher brings hope for those with gut issues

An Auckland researcher, 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.

Dr Peng Du received the prize, which awards him $200,000, from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a ceremony in Wellington today.

People who suffer chronic digestive conditions that cause constant nausea and illness have a brighter future because of Peng’s work. The 33-year-old is a Senior Research Fellow at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute and a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Engineering Science, both at the University of Auckland.

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.

Peng’s first world-leading research involved mapping the bioelectrical activity of the gastrointestinal tract to detect the differences between healthy and 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 Peng.

To validate his team’s work, Peng took the technique overseas for further research in Europe, Asia and the United States.

“We achieved this in the good old kiwi way by getting on a plane with our equipment and presenting it to the clinician we’d been collaborating with overseas. But we first did the ground work to ensure the necessary approvals and protocols were in place—safety and reliability were the key factors,” he says.

Peng and his research team of biomedical engineers and clinicians have achieved another break-through in which the same gut activity can be monitored with an array of electrodes being placed on the body surface without the need for invasive surgery.

Filtering out noises and isolating gut activity for reliable recording was another major achievement.

Prototype manufacturing is underway and Peng says the first devices are almost in place for trials in a consortium of 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.

Peng’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.

Peng says digestive conditions have social and economic implications through lost productivity, mental stress and the cost of numerous tests carried out to provide a diagnosis.

He attributes effective communication to the success in building a globally-eminent research programme.

“One of the most important parts of my research is being able to talk across disciplines and educating clinicians who just want to be able to treat patients. It’s a challenge but it is how we have made the progress that we have made.

“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.”

Peng 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.

“The Prize also recognises our excellent education system, where you can do all your training in New Zealand, as I did at the University of Auckland, and become a world-leading scientist,” he says.

His advice to students, at all levels of science, is to focus on the big picture, 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.

Peng’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.

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