Furness laboratory: Digestive physiology and nutrition

Research Overview

View Professor Furness's latest publication listing here.

The healthy gut communicates with the brain and lives in harmony with the many bacteria it contains. Disorders of gut health lead to diabetes and metabolic disease, inadequate nutrition, pain, nausea, poor digestion and liver disease. Major digestive diseases include inflammatory bowel disease, gastroparesis, chronic constipation and the irritable bowel syndrome.

The gut is controlled through an extensive nervous system, the enteric nervous system (ENS), embedded in the gut wall, connections with the central nervous system (CNS) and through gut hormones. We are intensely interested in these control systems and how they are involved in disease states, including diabetes, gastroparesis and inflammatory bowel disease.

We are working to develop new approaches to treating bowel diseases through electroceuticals, an exciting new approach in which nerves are stimulated to treat disordered function, through drug development and by unravelling the basic mechanisms essential for digestive health. We are also working to understand the reasons why gastrointestinal functions become disordered when there are pathologies of the central nervous system, such as in Parkinson’s Disease.

In electroceuticals, Dr Martin Stebbing, Professor John Furness and Professor Robin McAllen are leading an effort to stimulate the vagus nerve to treat Inflammatory Bowel Disease, funded by $7 million from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. We are also investigating electroceutical approaches to the treatment of gastroparesis as part of an international research program funded by the US National Institutes of Health ($1.5 million).

In drug development, Professor Furness, Dr Ruslan Pustovit, Dr Rachel McQuade and Dr Akhter Hossain are investigating novel targets for treatment of constipation.

Dr Shanti Diwakarla is investigating the mechanisms that lead to the digestive system manifestations of Parkinson’s Disease and the ways in which they may be treated.

Dr Ruslan Pustovit is working on the problem of bowel dysfunction in Multiple Sclerosis, and leads this project in collaboration with Dr Simon Murray & Dr Junhua Xiao (Neutrophin and Myelin Lab) and Dr Peter Crouch (Neurodegenerative Disease Lab).

In basic mechanisms, we are studying roles of gut hormones and enteric nerves, the mechanisms by which inflammation in the gut is controlled by nerves, and ways of protecting the lining of the gut.


Dr Martin Stebbing, Senior Research Fellow

Dr Shanti Diwakarla, Post-doctoral Fellow

Dr Rachel McQuade, Post-doctoral Fellow

Dr Ruslan Pustovit, Post-doctoral Fellow

Dr Juan Molero, Post-doctoral Fellow

Dr Linda Fothergill, Post-doctoral Fellow

Dr Lalita Oparija, Post-doctoral fellow

Ms Billie Hunne, Research Assistant

Ms Madeleine Di Natalie, Research Assistant

Ms Enie Lei, Research Assistant

Mr Remy Constable, Research Assistant

Ms Josiane Fakhry, PhD student

Ms Ada Koo, PhD Student

Ms Theresa Fazio-Coles, PhD student

Ms Xin-Yi Chai, PhD student

Mr Mitchell Ringuet, PhD student

Ms Lewis Singleton, MSc student

Mr Ashane Herath, Honours Student

Prof Peter McIntyre, Honorary Professor


Professor Robin McAllen, Florey Institute
Professor Rob Shepherd, Bionics Institute
Professor Terry Powley, Purdue University, Indiana, USA
Professor Bob Jones, Surgery, Austin Health
Dr Peter de Cruz, Austin Health
Dr Birgitte Holst, Copenhagen
Dr David Finkelstein, Florey Institute
Dr Sebastian Furness, Monash University
Professor Ross Bathgate, Florey Institute
Dr Akhter Hossain, Florey Institute
Professor Michael McKinley, Florey Institute
Professor Clive May, Florey Institute
Dr David Bravo, Geneva, Switzerland
Dr Vicki Lawson, Pathology, University of Melbourne
Dr Sophie Payne, Bionics Institute
Dr Kristy Brown, Columbia University, New York
Professor Frank Dunshea, Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, University of Melbourne
Dr Jeremy Cottrell, Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, University of Melbourne
Dr Lincon Stamp, Anatomy and Neuroscience, University of Melbourne
Dr Marlene Hao, Anatomy and Neuroscience, University of Melbourne
Dr Leni Rivera, Deakin University

Dr Holly Chinnery, Florey Institute

Dr Laura Edgington-Mitchell, Bio21

Dr Simon Murray, Anatomy and neuroscience, University of Melbourne

Dr Peter Crouch, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, University of Melbourne

Dr Scott Mueller, Doherty Institute


2015-2018 Australian Pork Ltd. Optimising the progeny of first-litter sows in the Australian herd

2015-2019 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA USA). Vagal neuromodulation for the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease

2017-2022 NIH SPARC. Mapping stomach autonomic circuitry and function by neuromodulation of gastric disorders

2017-2019 NHMRC Project Grant. Novel cell therapy for Hirschsprung Disease: from patient iPS cells to large animal trials

2018-2021 NHMRC Project Grant 1145686. Unravelling the neuropathological basis of the gastrointestinal manifestations of Parkinson’s Disease

Research Publications

Furness, JB:  The enteric nervous system and neurogastroenterology. Nature Rev. Gastroenterol. Hepatol. 9, 286-294 (2012)

Furness, JB, Rivera, LR, Cho, H-J, Bravo, DM, Callaghan, B:  The gut as a sensory organ. Nature Rev. Gastroenterol. Hepatol. 10, 729-740 (2013).

Callaghan, B, Furness, JB:  Novel and conventional receptors for ghrelin, desacyl-ghrelin and pharmacologically related compounds.  Pharmacol Rev. 66, 984-1001 (2014).

Furness, JB, Callaghan, B, Rivera, LR, Cho, H-J:  The enteric nervous system and gastrointestinal innervation: Integrated local and central control.  Advances exp Med Biol, 817, 39-71 (2014).

Rivera, LR, Leung, C, Pustovit, RV, Hunne, B, Andrikopoulos, S, Herath, C, Testro, A, Angus, PW, Furness JB: Damage to enteric neurons occurs in mice that develop fatty liver disease but not diabetes in response to a high fat diet.  Neurogastroenterol Motil.  26, 1188-1199 (2014).

Stamp, LA, Obermayr, F, Pontell, L, Young, HM, Xie, D, Croaker, D, Song, Z-M, Furness, JB:Surgical intervention to rescue Hirschsprung disease in a rat model.  J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 21, 552-559 (2015).

Fothergill, LJ, Furness, JB:  Diversity of enteroendocrine cells investigated at cellular and subcellular levels: the need for a new classification scheme.  Histochem Cell Biol 150, 693-702 (2018)

Furness, JB, Stebbing MJ: The first brain: species comparisons and evolutionary implications for the enteric and central nervous systems.  Neurogast Motil ;30, e13234, 1-6 (2018).

Furness, JB, Fakhry, J, Gajewski, J, Boyle, EK, Fothergill, LJ: The digestive system in evolutionary medicine. In Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Medicine, Ed: Martin Brüne and Wulf Schiefenhövel.  Oxford University Press, pp531-562 (2019).

Payne, SC, Furness, JB, Burns, O, Sedo, A, Hyakumura, T, Shepherd, RK, Fallon, JB,: Anti-inflammatory effects of abdominal vagus nerve stimulation on experimental intestinal inflammation.  Frontiers Neuroscience 13, 418, 1-15 (2019).