Daphne’s story

My name is Daphne and I am a researcher in gastroparesis. Throughout my life, I have always been fascinated and interested in pursuing a career in research, particularly in bridging basic science with clinical medicine. In 2016, I completed my Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Biochemistry followed by my employment as a research assistant in the ANZAC Research Institute. These experiences led me to pursue my PhD project at Western Sydney University in gut motility and cell biology in 2018. My research focuses on understanding the gut pacemaker cells called interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC).

ICC are critical for producing gut muscle waves, which is essential for controlling normal gut motility. Importantly, loss of ICC or damaged ICC are key hallmarks in patients suffering from gastroparesis. Therefore, ICC present potential therapeutic targets to treat gastroparesis. However, little is known about these cells in humans, so my research focused on collecting and characterising the molecular profiles of ICC from human stomach patient samples.

I was able to secure a small but consistent supply of human stomach tissue from patients undergoing stomach reduction surgery. Using these samples, I established a way to purify human ICC for my investigations. I then used cutting-edge technologies – including RNA-sequencing, single-cell RNA-sequencing and mass spectrometry – to predict gene and protein networks responsible for human ICC functions. These networks provide a new, detailed and highly valuable framework to understand how ICC contribute to normal gut motility – for example, by controlling contraction or relaxation of gut smooth muscles.

The results from my studies build a very strong and world-leading foundation to investigate new treatments for gastroparesis. This pioneering research would not be possible without the support of Rotary Health Australia and Devonport Rotary Club, and we are extremely grateful for this partnership.

I have also been involved in presenting and promoting my work to raise awareness and funds for gastroparesis research on various platforms. These include the 2019 3-minute thesis competition (where I represented WSU in the Asia-Pacific finals), WSU Giving Day abseiling event, and a number of university-based and international conferences.

In the future, I would like to apply my PhD results in a clinical setting and pursue my career goals in translational research – to bring our basic science findings in the lab into clinical trials. I hope that one day, my research will lead to a cure for patients with debilitating gastroparesis.