Young researcher awarded prestigious fellowship

22 September 2015
Portrait of Dr Peng Du

Dr Peng Du of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute has been awarded a prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowship. A total of twelve fellows were announced late last week by Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce. The fellowships provide funding of up to $800,000 each over five years to cover salary and research costs.

Dr Du’s research focuses on the gastrointestinal system, or the gut. He will be using the fellowship to improve understanding of how bioelectrical activity is generated by the cells in the gut, and what happens to this activity when there is a digestive disorder. The approach will combine biomedical engineering, physiological and clinical research, and involve the development of novel medical instruments to record the bioelectrical activity. This work will potentially lead to quicker diagnosis and treatment of digestive disorders, and contribute to a growing number of intellectual properties and commercialisation start-ups in the science and technology sector of our economy.

Established in 2010, the fellowships aim to foster the development of future research leaders and to assist with the retention and repatriation of New Zealand’s talented early- to mid- career researchers. The fellowships are funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), and administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand. Dr Du is the second member of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute to be awarded one of these fellowships, the first being Dr Alys Clark in 2014.

The selection criteria used for the fellowships considers the calibre of the researcher, their proposed programme of research, and their capability as a research leader. Dr Du said that “during the selection process they emphasised on a vision of the future of New Zealand’s research excellence”.

Dr Du has a notable track-record as an emerging researcher. A “home-grown” researcher, he started his career at the University of Auckland in 2004 studying for a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) in Biomedical Engineering. He continued on to complete a PhD under the supervision of the late Professor Andrew Pullan, and his work was awarded the Vice Chancellor's Prize for Best Doctoral Thesis in 2012. Later that year, Dr Du was awarded a Rutherford Foundation New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowship - which he describes as being “like a baby Rutherford” - and a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fast-Start Grant, which enabled him to conduct world-leading research in bioinstrumentation, mathematical modelling, and experimental study of gut bioelectrical activity and motility.

Dr Du is a member of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS), and Vice-Chair of the New Zealand EMBS North Chapter - the world's largest international society of biomedical engineers. He also served as Secretary of the STRATUS Network for Emerging Researchers.

 

Following is a general description of the research programme Dr Du will be directing under his fellowship:

A joint experimental-modelling strategy for translational gastrointestinal electrophysiology and motility

Chronic digestive disorders are common, yet the underlying causes of these disorders remain poorly understood. As a result, these disorders often require multiple medical tests and visits to the doctors, which can extract a major economic and symptom burden. One potential avenue of quicker diagnosis and treatment is to utilise the bioelectrical activity the gut generates every time it contracts to digest food. However, this bioelectrical activity is currently incompletely understood and underused in clinics.

The overall vision of this programme is to improve our understanding of how the bioelectrical activity is generated by the cells in the gut and what happens to this activity when there is a digestive disorder. To fulfil this vision, a combined biomedical engineering, physiological, and clinical research approach will be employed to tackle the research problem from multiple fronts. In particular, novel and minimally-invasive medical instruments will be developed to obtain recordings of the bioelectrical activity and calcium activations in the gut. A series of biophysically-based mathematical models will also be employed to discover how the different components of the gut functions work together inside a virtual environment, to predict the effects of disorders on gut functions, and how to treat the underlying causes of these disorders. Finally, the outcomes of this programme will contribute to a growing number of intellectual properties and commercialisation start-ups in the science and technology sector of our economy.
 

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