Catherine Masters meets the latest recipient of the Rutherford Medal.

Gattaca was on the television the other night. That's the 1997 film about a future world where your DNA can be processed in seconds and your genetic makeup determines whether you are included in society or destined for the most menial of jobs.

In his Auckland University office with sweeping views to the museum and tennis courts on Stanley St, which he confesses he sometimes forgets to look at, Professor Peter Hunter says casually that the film was not farfetched at all.

This extremely clever scientist says such technological revolution is with us already, it's just damn expensive. The goal of being able to do complete DNA scans for people for $1000 is probably only five years away, he says. If that.


Hunter is one of those at the forefront of bringing amazing technological revolution within reach.

The Auckland Bioengineering Institute director, who has just been awarded this country's most prestigious science honour, the Rutherford Medal, is behind what is called the Physiome Project, an international project which aims to build computer models of all the organ systems of the human body.

The aim is a virtual human body built from the smallest components up, formed by mathematics and graphics.

The Rutherford Medal follows another honour for Hunter. In 2006 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society in London, where is his name is listed alongside the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Einstein.

Hunter is a self-confessed workaholic who says though he may have received the honour, science never happens in isolation. He patiently chunks advances in science down, explaining how breakthroughs in different areas converge and move science forward.

Think about the human genome project, he says. This began with the structure of DNA in the mid-1950s. American biologist James Watson and British physicist Francis Crick came up with the famous DNA helix which led to an extraordinary 50-year revolution in the field of molecular biology.

The human genome project was about the complete understanding of the DNA behind life, he says. It's the process of reductionism, of having a complex organism which is a combination of genetics and all sorts of other environmental processes which all go along with making the human body what it is.

Though reductionism - breaking the body into its tiniest bits - has been going on for years, little work had been attempted on putting it all back together again, "to take Humpty Dumpty who's broken into a million pieces and reassemble him into understanding how he works as an intact, integrated organism."


This is what Hunter and his colleagues and students, and scientists from around the world, are now trying to do.

Putting Humpty Dumpty back together is really an engineering problem, he says. The engineering world has figured out how to deal with multiple levels of complexity in engineering, working with the laws of physics and nature. These laws apply equally to biology.

Hence the virtual human project. The implications from achieving such a virtual human are huge, from the trialling of drugs to personalised medicine - specific design of implants, for example, to suit individual bodies - to individualised predictive medicine.

Hunter and his team are standing on the brink of something big.

"There are already a lot of applications of this stuff into healthcare but I think it's only the very beginning of something that is going to be important for healthcare in the future.

"My guess is that within five years we'll be using models to test drugs and we'll be having clinical trials around the use of drugs with models."

Advances often come slow then fast, he says. "There are a number of developments which have to build on the basic technology to really be able to exploit it effectively, and the same will happen here."

This building of knowledge perhaps mirrors Hunter's bioengineering career, which began with a Master of Engineering in 1971 where he worked on solving the equations around blood flow in arteries and fell in love with biology. He went to Oxford on a Commonwealth scholarship and, with no formal training in biology since school, decided the best way to learn was to do his PhD in a physiology department.

Back in New Zealand, he met another New Zealand engineer/physiologist, Bruce Smaill and together they began modelling the human heart, which led to the start of the Physiome Project in 1980.

He puts an image of a beating heart on a large television screen in his office. This looks like a real heart but is a virtual heart. It is all mathematical modelling, made possible from knowing everything from the underlying anatomy, tissue structure and its properties to the proteins involved and their function.

"What you're doing is expressing that mathematically and then solving the equations to then tell you how it works as an intact organ and then what happens if it goes wrong."

He then puts up an image of the faces of young people. Forget about "grey-hairs" like him, he says.

These are bioengineering graduates - and they are the future of New Zealand's economy, he says.

"The single most important thing is that we have an environment where these sort of people, bright young people can get engaged with things that are interesting to them and can lead to commercial outcomes.

"It's a no brainer really."

When the film Gattaca came out, such technological advances seemed far away enough to not be too worrying.

Now such breakthroughs are here, is there anything to really worry about?

Hunter is not concerned.

"I think there are enough checks and balances in society to make sure we use technological advances in the right way."