The final frontier of electrophysiology

It was the late Professor Andrew Pullan who raised Dr Peng Du’s interest in electrophysiology.

“He called it the "final frontier”, so what can be more exciting than to explore the final frontier? says Dr Du, who is a senior research fellow in the Gastrointestinal Research Group at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute.

“I did my Honours Project (Part IV project) with Professor Pullan, modelling the bioelectrical activity of the gut, and have continued this research. The MedTech CoRE has enabled me to focus more on the translational and commercialisation aspects of my research.”

Dr Du also credits the University of Auckland and MedTech CoRE, citing guidance and mentorship from key senior researchers. He also says his work has benefited greatly from the high-quality research from the cardiac research group at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, saying there is still much we can learn from them.

He began his research career to discover more about how the natural world works and use that knowledge towards building a healthy and sustainable future for everyone.

With gut electrophysiology in diseases, Dr Du says the key challenge is establishing a clinical consensus on its role. To this end, the team is working with clinicians to identify specific digestive diseases associated with abnormal gut bioelectrical activities. While treatment options that manipulate the gut bioelectrical activity are still experimental, Dr Du says one immediate benefit of their research is quicker diagnosis and more effective monitoring of recovery of gut functions under different treatment regimes.

In 2015, MedTech CoRE supported Dr Du in spinning out FlexiMap which offers high-resolution mapping devices, modelling solutions, and signal processing and analysis. The goal is to improve diagnostic accuracy and deliver customised therapy for patients with gastrointestinal motility disorders.

“MedTech provided accelerated research translation funding to support us, and that enabled us to develop our first multi-channel recording system and software.”

FlexiMap now has customers in the US, Europe and China.

Where to from here? Detection of gut bioelectrical activity has always relied on internal placement of sensors, and Dr Du says a critical step towards any meaningful clinical translation will be the reliable non-invasive detection from the body surface (called electrogastrography/EGG).

But even this isn’t an end-goal for Dr Du.

“There will always be more to understand. I ended my acceptance speech of the Prime Minister's MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize in 2018 with ‘As scientists we should be determined in our pursuit of the truth yet remain humbled by just how much there is yet to discover’.”

He also has some advice for up and coming researchers. “I have always liked the late Professor Alan MacDiarmid's take on the Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner – about a young hunter setting out on a journey to seek ‘the great white bird of absolute truth’. Even though the hunter never reached in his objective, the path he had forged would allow others to go further than he did and get closer to the ‘absolute truth’.”

Dr Du was awarded a prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowship in 2015 and a University of Auckland Early Career Excellence Award in 2013. In 2012, he won the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize for Best Doctoral Thesis, a Marsden Fast Start Grant, and a Rutherford Foundation NZ Post-doctoral Fellowship.

By Prue Scott

Dr Peng Du