Professor Dong Chen FTSE

Revolutionising gastrointestinal research

17 November 2023

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Professor Xiao Dong Chen

Distinguished Professor and Founding Head of the School of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at Soochow University in Suzhou, China.

Let me share my personal journey with you, one that has left a significant mark on the field of food engineering and its intersection with nutrition and the medical dimensions of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

As a chemical engineer, I embarked on a unique mission – to bridge the gap between the science of engineering and the complex world of nutrition and digestive health. It was clear to me that understanding the processes occurring below the neck, such as digestion, absorption, and the interactions of biochemicals like enzymes and bile acids, was paramount for the well-being of consumers – whose choices are shaped by above the neck characteristics such as taste and texture.

In 2003, I proposed a groundbreaking idea – a biology-inspired approach to create a near real bionic in vitro GI tract model. I imagined that once such an experimental instrument was available, engineering researchers like me could illustrate the digestive process in a manner that translated biological phenomena into the language of engineering science.

In 2006, while at Monash University, I teamed up with a brilliant PhD student, Ji Yeon Yoo, to turn this vision into a reality. Ji Yeon is now a Professor of Food Science at Auckland University of Technology. We successfully created the first near-real human stomach using silicone and designed a capillary system to simulate secretions. Our innovation involved tens of small tubes moulded into the stomach wall. However, our efforts initially went unnoticed by the scientific community, and it seemed impossible to get our findings into the literature.

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Professor Chen with the Food Engineering Team from INRAe from France, in front of the bio-mimic adult digestion system. 

In 2009, our persistence paid off when we constructed and studied a bionic in vitro model of a rat stomach. The results were finally accepted and published in Food Digestion in 2010, making a significant breakthrough. The wealth of prior research on rat digestion provided a solid foundation for comparison, and the value of our work was recognised.

I moved to Xiamen University in China in 2010, where I continued to pursue my vision. We developed new mechanised human stomach and rat stomach models, complete with relevant bionic wrinkles inside the stomachs. These anatomical details were crucial for understanding protein digestion rates, further emphasising the near-real nature of our models.

Under my guidance, Dr Peng Wu (now Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at Soochow University) and others made remarkable progress in the ensuing years, leading to the commercialisation of our devices. This laid the foundation for the rapid growth of Xiao Dong Pro-health Instrumentation Ltd in Suzhou, the company I founded in 2018.

Today, our company offers a wide range of models, from adult human to infant, alongside a range of animal digestive models. We’ve expanded our offerings to include an excellent human oral processor and colon reactor, both of which are now available to the market.

These combined bionic organs, from mouth to colon, powered by intelligent control and mechanical-electrical robotics, along with secretions delivered to mimic in vivo scenarios, have given birth to a complete bionic GI tract model. This model has revolutionised the testing of food products, orally delivered drugs, encapsulated probiotics, and special foods for patients. We’ve even tested innovative weight control devices within the bionic GI tract.

Our collaboration with medical professionals specialising in the GI tract has allowed us to explore the potential consequences of various surgeries on digestion. We’ve also tailored our models to address specific scenarios for the elderly and very young, offering more accurate insights.

Our bionic developments have streamlined the testing process and improved the success of bioequivalence tests for simulated medicines. The commercialisation of our in vitro system has supported numerous journal publications and product development projects, benefitting universities and companies alike.

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The Infant digestion model designed by Professor Chen, which can tilt to various angles and directions to simulate a child’s response. 

Over 50 universities and research organisations worldwide have recognised the value of our system, including institutions in France, the Netherlands, Australia, and the United States.

Notably, major dairy companies such as Mengniu, Yili, and Danone in China routinely turn to our team for cutting-edge digestion research. In Europe, our in vitro systems are marketed under the brand NerdT machine by Holland Green Science.

My recent work on soft-elastic reactors (SER) has been a natural progression of my research journey, building on a deep understanding of human and animal digestive processes. SERs offer a practical solution for handling highly viscous fluids, taking advantage of the flexible, elastic properties of their walls. Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been fulfilling to see the continued success of our research efforts.

Professor Xiao Dong Chen was elected a Fellow of the Academy in 2007. His research contributions cover a range of fundamental topics in the food and biotechnology industries.