Inside the lab: Meet the team finding new treatments for cancer, mental health and more

Meet the Translational Epigenomic Research and Therapeutics Lab at IMPACT, a small but mighty team who are working to find new treatments for some of our most important health problems.  

Led by Dr Rasika Samarasinghe, the team sits within IMPACT’s Novel Treatment and Discovery theme. The focus of their research is on translational epigenetics and drug repurposing for the treatment of various disorders including cancer, mental health and inflammatory diseases. 

Their mission is to leverage innovative research strategies to improve disease diagnosis and prognosis and discover better treatments for patients.  

However, the team also have a strong focus on fostering collaborative efforts with esteemed laboratories around Australia and the world.  

‘We’re focused on supporting the next generation of medical researchers. We have a strong emphasis on supporting our students through what can be a challenging journey to complete a PhD,’ says Dr Samarasinghe.  

‘We are a mostly female team, and we want to show how women in STEM can make a difference, and inspire the next generation of women and girls to take up a career in medical research’

Dr Rasika Samarasinghe

‘Our team have a strong focus on creating a nurturing environment where students are encouraged to explore their interests, develop critical thinking skills, and realise their full potential.’ says Dr Samarasinghe. 

The lab specialises in two key areas of research. They work in translational epigenetics where they look at the role of our genetics in how diseases start, progress and respond to different therapies.  

‘We’re understanding more and more about how our genes play a role in diseases. If we can understand how epigenetic modifications influence gene expression, then we can identify new therapeutic targets and biomarkers to create personalised disease treatment.’ 

Wound scratch image of SF188 cells migrating under the influence of cytotoxic agents

The second area of research within the lab is drug repurposing and identifying novel therapeutics.  

‘Some of our most common drugs can be repurposed for a variety of conditions such as cancer and mental health conditions. By researching drugs that we already know are safe, we can fast-track clinical translation and deliver therapies to patients who need them.’

Dr Rasika Samarasinghe in the lab
Dr Rasika Samarasinghe in the lab

The team have cellular and molecular models and techniques through the Deakin University lab spaces at the Waurn Ponds campus such as 3D/organoid cell models, stem cells and patient-derived cell models, Confocal microscopy, Epigenomic array analysis and much more.

PhD Spotlight: finding new treatments for paediatric brain tumours

Dona Ann Johns is on track to complete her PhD with Deakin this year after a whirlwind research journey.  

What made you interested in this area of research?

Since the completion of my master’s, I’ve been passionate about pursuing research in Paediatric brain tumours, which are a significant health concern affecting children. These tumours can have devastating effects on cognitive development, physical health, and overall quality of life. I am eager to delve into novel treatment approaches, such as precision medicine and personalized therapies, which can help increase survival rates and long-term outcomes for affected children.  

What year did you start your PhD? When did you have children – can you talk about what that was like during a PhD?

I started my PhD in November 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. My supervisors and HDR team were so supportive and understanding and made my PhD life easier. I got pregnant with my secondborn right after I received my scholarship offer and this journey was only possible due to the support, I received from the Deakin HDR team and especially from my supervisor Dr Rasika. She had been an absolute pillar of support during the tough times and through my confirmation journey by showing extreme patience and understanding during periods when I needed to take things a bit slow and needed extra support. The Deakin Graduate Research Academy has been supportive as well as guiding me through each stage of my PhD.  

What advice would you give to someone wanting to study a PhD with Deakin?

I decided to continue my higher studies at Deakin mainly because of the quality of education we received during my masters at Deakin in 2016. The educational quality and excellent facilities at Deakin made me choose Deakin as my first choice to pursue research. Studying for a PhD at Deakin University has been a very rewarding and enriching experience. Deakin IS focused on fostering young talents in STEM and helping them achieve their dreams. I would highly recommend Deakin’s School of Medicine to anyone aspiring to be a scientist.  

Can you summarise the findings of your research?

So far, my research has identified potential repurposed drug candidates that can used against paediatric astrocytoma. I am currently in the process of establishing the functional and cytotoxic assay of these drugs. Dona recently published her first authored publication from her PhD which explored the paediatric astrocytoma, a type of cancer that occurs in the brain and spinal cord. 

Dona recently published her first authored publication from her PhD which explored paediatric astrocytoma, a type of cancer that occurs in the brain and spinal cord. Read the latest publication from the lab by Dona titled ‘Novel insights on genetics and epigenetics as clinical targets for paediatric astrocytoma’.

Meet the team

Group Head

  • Rasika Samarasinghe, PhD, GCHELT, FHEA, Deakin University. Lecturer and Deputy course director of Medical Biotechnology, Infection and Immunity majors, Biomedical Science Degree.

PhD students

  • Dona Ann Johns: M.Sc. (Research) Biotechnology, M.Sc. Biotechnology
  • Demagi Herath: BSc (Hons) Bachelor of Science
  • Mahima Yadav: MSc. Biotechnology

MPhil Students

  • Tharaka Mayadunne: BSc
  • Andrew Nagi Wiesa: BSc

Interested in completing a PhD at Deakin University?

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