Tackling Gastric Dysrhythmia with Bioengineering

Digestive disorders can be debilitating, diagnosis is often only possible through surgery and there’s no proven treatment.
Dr Tim Angeli from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) is using a newly-awarded Rutherford Discovery Fellowship to help him research new tools and therapies based on electrophysiology. This is a branch of physiology related to the flow of electrical current in biological tissues and the recording techniques enabling measurement of this flow.

Dr Angeli plays a central role in the MedTech CoRE's Flagship project on “Diagnosis and Therapy of Gastric Dysrhythmias.” He also currently holds a prestigious Edith C. Coan Fellowship from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation.

“I will use this fellowship to establish the Laboratory for Translational Research in Gastroenterology and Emerging Technologies ‒ TARGET Lab ‒ with dedicated capabilities for pre-clinical gastrointestinal research to bridge the gap from engineering benchtop to clinical bedside,” says Dr Angeli.

Like the heart, the contractions of the stomach that are responsible for digestion are initiated and coordinated by underlying bioelectrical waves. Dr Angeli and his wider research group have contributed to the discovery of complex bioelectrical activation patterns, called “dysrhythmias”, in a range of digestive disorders. He is now using his fellowship to focus on two key areas of translational medicine.

“Firstly, we’re developing and validating endoscopic electrical mapping of the stomach as a minimally-invasive diagnostic tool. Secondly, we’re developing gastric ablation therapy, and ultimately aim to integrate it into the endoscopic device to create a new diagnostic and therapeutic platform,” he says.

“We hope this will vastly improve the efficiency of diagnosing gastrointestinal disorders and give clinicals new treatment options.”
The fellowship will also enable Dr Angeli to supervise and mentor PhD students who will become the next generation of clinically-minded bioengineers.

Dr Angeli came to New Zealand to complete his PhD at the ABI, having completed Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan.
He originally completed the medical school admissions requirements during his bachelor’s degree, and was planning to apply to medical schools, but changed course. “I ultimately decided that working in research and development of medical technologies had huge potential to positively improve patient life and medical outcomes, worldwide.”

He finds the gastrointestinal field particularly interesting because it seems to be relatively under-developed, and potentially even under-appreciated, compared to other fields of medicine.

“Patients suffer a debilitating quality of life. When diagnosis alone can take months or years, you can understand how desperate these patients are for diagnosis and treatment options. Clinicians are also frustrated by a relative lack of necessary tools to make an efficient diagnosis.”

Dr Angeli has already developed a prototype endoscopic mapping device and completed pre-clinical trials.

“We’re currently starting clinical trials in patients with healthy stomachs and a range of digestive disorders to validate the effectiveness of the endoscopic mapping device as a diagnostic tool. We’ve also completed pre-clinical trials demonstrating the feasibility of gastric ablation, and are now defining the optimal parameter ranges and developing the methodology for targeting specific areas of abnormal conduction.”

This research also has substantial commercialisation potential. Dr Angeli’s wider research group have secured intellectual property (IP) protection, founded the spin-out company FlexiMap Ltd and are talking to international medical device companies to explore further opportunities.

He describes the Rutherford fellowship as a “huge, life-changing opportunity that offers me the stability and support to expand my research programme and develop world-class research capabilities in the translational gastrointestinal space here in New Zealand.”

By Prue Scott

Dr Tim Angeli