1. Please give a summary of your research.
My research has been focused on the development of non-invasive diagnostic tools for the early detection of metastatic cancers. Metastasis remains the major cause of cancer related deaths (approximately 90%) and very little is understood about the metastatic seeds in circulation, commonly termed circulating tumour cells (CTCs). My research, through the use of state of the art CTC isolation methodologies, has led to a number of significant advances in knowledge in the areas of solid cancers including head and neck cancers (HNCs), and lung cancers.
My work has clarified the need to move away from marker dependent platforms to more unbiased CTC capture methodologies which are able to capture single and CTC clusters. CTC clusters/microemboli have been shown to be crucial in the development of metastatic disease. My work in CTC clusters has been one of the few early studies documenting these in HNC patients.
The bottleneck in the field has been to expand these rare cancer cells from the patient’s blood as this would provide the "holy grail" of a non-invasive liquid biopsy. I was able to report, for the first time in HNCs, short term CTC expansion outside the patient’s body using novel culture formulations. These short term cultures can be used for the testing of medicines and drug sensitivity assays to determine whether culture responses parallel patient responses to therapy.
My research has also revealed that biomarkers are expressed on CTCs which can be used to select patients for immunotherapy – a current unmet clinical need.
2. Please include any additional details you would like to share
Immunotherapies have been hailed as a ‘game changer’ in the treatment of cancer patients and have doubled survival rates in advanced stage cancers. However, they do not work in all patients and can be toxic to some. With immunotherapy costing about $150,000 per patient per year, it is important economically to select patients who are most receptive to the treatment. Through my research, i have identified a method to capture cancer cells using a simple blood draw and identify immunotherapeutic targets which are potentially predictive of therapy outcomes. This has the potential to determine whether a patient would (1) be eligible for immunotherapy and (2) determine whether the patient is responding to the treatment over the course of their treatment.
Arutha Kulasinghe is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the Queensland University of Technology.