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30 March 2022

PhD candidate Yomani Sarathkumara is harnessing her knowledge of molecular immunology in a bid to develop an early diagnostic test that will one day predict cancers associated with infectious disease.

Yomani said if they could identify immune signatures in the blood of patients who are at risk of developing cancer, and predict them, they could potentially offer an early diagnosis and to inform early intervention.

Yomani is particularly interested in Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a member of the herpes virus family, which is known to be linked to a number of cancers. 

“EBV is common throughout the world, and a very small fraction of EBV-infected individuals can develop an EBV-associated cancer. Most of these infectious disease-related cancers are often detected at the end stage of the cancer,” she said.

“If we can predict the risk of an individual developing a cancer and we can get an early diagnosis, that might improve the prognosis for the patient allowing them to get early treatment to stop the disease.”

Yomani has spent the past two years at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM), undertaking protein microarrays on 1000 `blinded’ samples from  case-control studies as part of a collaborative study with the National Cancer Institute of the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH).  

Her work aims to identify molecular immune signatures and pathogen proteins that represent potential biomarkers of underlying (latent) infection, to identify diagnostic immune signatures for EBV-associated cancers such as Natural Killer T-cell Lymphoma (NKTCL), Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (HL), and Post-Transplant Lymphoproliferative Disease (PTLD).

Another aim of Yomani’s PhD project is to reveal immune signatures of tuberculosis (TB) in a highly endemic rural community of Papua New Guinea using whole-blood transcriptome profiling applying RNA-seq sequencing techniques and machine learning approaches. The hope is that this work will provide a better understanding of the infection and disease categories, to help develop effective interventions and improve health.

Yomani said she has always been very dedicated to scientific research, which is all about exploring the unknown or when little is known, and identifying the knowledge and research gaps while understanding what we already know’. “This concept in research has motivated me throughout the journey so far,” she said.

Her research began in Sri Lanka, where she completed a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degree at the University of Peradeniya in 2018, working on zoonotic infectious diseases including leptospirosis, hantavirus infection, and melioidosis.

She travelled to Australia and joined the JCU Doctoral Cohort program in 2019, working in AITHM under the guidance of Professor Denise Doolan.

“The Cohort is an excellent opportunity to make good connections, and provides excellent research mentoring,” she said.

She encourages others who are passionate about becoming a researcher to understand the opportunities available, and choose a field of study of interest. Yomani has authored or co-authored 8 publications in peer-reviewed international and local journals and is a highly ranked PhD student.

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