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Buddhini Samarasinghe
Attended University of Bath (Undergraduate)
Lived in Hawaii
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Education
  • University of Bath (Undergraduate)
    Molecular and Cellular Biology, 2002 - 2006
  • University of Glasgow (PhD)
    Veterinary Parasitology, 2006 - 2010
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Molecular Biologist & Science Communicator
Introduction
I am a molecular biologist and a passionate science communicator. I love engaging the public with current research in the life sciences. Where possible, I use original, open access research papers and I describe the science minus the jargon! 

I am the author of a series of articles in Scientific American, titled "The Hallmarks of Cancer". These jargon-free articles explain the molecular mechanisms that underlie cancer development. 

I am also involved in science outreach through broadcasts on YouTube and I am an active contributor to the many Science Communities here on Google+. I also have side interests in photography, technology, travel, baking, good conversation and food! 

  • I am a strong advocate of science. Therefore I will on occasion write about 'controversial' topics like global warming, vaccination, evolution, pseudoscience and science policy. Beyond a certain point, I will not debate topics that the vast majority of scientists agree on. 
  • I respond to questions on science. Engagement is a vital component of science outreach, and if the topics I write about interest you, I encourage you to join the ensuing discussion!
  • I encourage conversations on my posts. To that effect I maintain the right to ask anyone who joins in to keep the discussion on topic, and not attack others already engaging on the post. 

The majority of my posts tend to be about science. These are a few example posts, so you have a fair idea what to expect to see from me;

Evolution of Snake Venom 
Interfering with RNA
Curiosities of fly genes 
"Inferring The Wind From the Movement of the Trees"
Zombie roaches 
How to Build a Snake
The history of WI-38 cells 
Radioactive bacteria for cancer treatment
Cancer Stem Cells
  • I am involved in curating a circle of women who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. 
  • I am a co-curator for Science Sunday. If you want to get involved, tag your science posts with #ScienceSunday on Sundays or #ScienceEveryday for other days. 
  • Oh, and apparently I am an INTJ
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Science Communicator
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Hawaii - Glasgow - Bath - Colombo - Memphis

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Buddhini Samarasinghe

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How does neuroblastoma evade immune cells?

✤ Neuroblastoma is a rare type of solid tumour that affects infants and very young children. It grows from nerve cells left over from development in the womb. Normally these cells vanish once they have done their job, and the reasons why they persist and carry on dividing in rare instances to become a cancer remain a mystery.

✤ One of the intriguing features of neuroblastoma is that the tumour creates an environment where the immune system is suppressed. Cancer cells often send out molecules to suppress the immune system, so that they can remain undetected within our bodies.

✤ Which is why immunotherapies, that can 'wake up the immune system', have so much promise. But first, we have to understand exactly how cancer cells suppress the immune system, so that we can develop those new immunotherapies.

✤ Our immune system is made up of many different types of cells. The most important is type of cell is known as a T-cell. T-cells can act as the soldiers of the immune system, actively engaged in ‘search and destroy’ missions looking for harmful disease-causing enemy cells. Unfortunately cancer cells can ‘hide’ from T-cells by sending out molecules that put these T-cells to sleep, through a process known as immunosuppression.

✤ But what are these molecules, and how do they cause immunosuppression? And most importantly, how can we exploit this knowledge to develop therapies that can re-activate these T cells?

✤ Researchers at the University of Birmingham have found that a molecule called arginine might be involved. Arginine is an amino acid normally found within our cells, and is broken down by an enzyme called arginase. The team discovered that neuroblastoma cells produce a lot of arginase enzyme. It means that in the environment surrounding neuroblastoma cells, known as the tumour microenvironment, arginine levels are very low. This reduced level of arginine is involved in the immunosuppression seen in neuroblastoma tumours. The team also showed that this same mechanism might be involved in immunosuppression in another childhood cancer, called acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).  

✤ So what is the impact of this research? We now know how important it is to regulate arginine levels in the tumour, so that T-cells can remain active. This immunosuppression also affects cell-based therapies, where engineered T cells are injected into patients. So it’s even more important that we make sure that the immunosuppressed tumour microenvironment is addressed before trying out new immunotherapies for treatment.

✤ It is tempting to think of giving arginine supplements to patients, to 'boost their immune system', but there is concern that it might feed tumour growth. A better approach would be to inhibit the activity of the enzyme, arginase. Excitingly, there are several compounds that act on arginase that are going through pre-clinical investigations. When given in combination with existing immunotherapies, these arginase inhibitors could greatly enhance treatment, and so improve patient outcome for the cancers where they work

Full paper: http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/75/15/3043.long

Image credit: Neuroblastoma cell line, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroblastoma#/media/File:BiggeggSH-SY5Y.jpg)
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Buddhini Samarasinghe

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At the Royal Institution, listening to Professor Stephen Hawkings talk about Black Holes at the Reith Memorial Lecture. So so excited! 
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+Secular Portal I'll admit to having awesome email reply-skills - when the aforementioned friend sent round an email asking who wanted spare tickets to this event, I pounced on them in less than 10 nanoseconds :P
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Buddhini Samarasinghe

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Processed meat and Cancer: What is the Risk?

Yesterday I hosted a Hangout with two scientists to talk about the links between diet and cancer, on the back of the "omg bacon gives you cancer" stories that broke out a few weeks ago. As part of my job as a science communicator at CRUK, I get access to researchers who study this, so I was very pleased to chat with Dr Kathryn Bradbury, a nutritional epidemiologist, and Professor Owen Sansom, a molecular biologist. It was a good mix of research interests because we were able to approach this question from a population/clinical angle, but then also dive into the mechanism behind what we see, i.e. how exactly does red and processed meat increase cancer risk. You can watch the full video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jS1QW74wJRw. Joining me was my colleague Dr Kat Arney, who co-hosts these cancer Hangouts with me. 

First we discussed how we find out what things in the diet are linked to cancer - Kathryn explained how we design studies looking at hundreds of thousands of people from the general population. We ask them questions about their diet and lifestyle, and then we follow them up over many years to see who develops cancer. Then we look back and see what effect their diets had on their cancer development, for example did vegetarians get less cancer than those who ate lots of red and processed meat. Having large-scale population based studies like this is the only way we can gather evidence for the risk factors for cancer; lots of people mean better statistical analyses, which means the data is more rigorous, rather than the anecdotal "oh my neighbour drank a miracle kale juice cleanser every day and he never got cancer" theories. 

Owen talked about the mechanisms for cancer development, particularly bowel cancer, and how it is linked to the molecules found in red and processed meat. The cells lining our gut get completely replaced every 3-4 days, so they are cells with a high rate of cell division. These cells are also exposed to cancer-causing chemicals (i.e. carcinogens) from the food we eat, depending on our diet. With red and processed meat, eating a lot of it means that the gut cells are also exposed to a lot of the carcinogens found in them. For example red and processed meats have a lot of nitroso products, and these can be carcinogenic. How exactly does that work? These chemicals cause mutations to the DNA in the cells lining the gut. Owen also talked about how it can cause more mutations in key tumour-suppressor genes (i.e. genes that normally suppress cancer, but when these genes are mutated it leads to cancer - I discussed one such pathway here https://goo.gl/6CSn10). Haem iron from red meat is also a culprit because it has shown to cause DNA damage. Intriguingly, Owen also brought up how the bacterial population in our gut (i.e. our microbiome) can change depending on what we eat, which in turn can have an impact on whether the cells lining our gut can end up with mutations that can lead to cancer. 

Finally we finished up by talking about cancer prevention. We know that 4 in 9 cancers are linked to preventable causes, so what are the things we can do to lower our cancer risk? The answers were unsurprising; give up smoking (if you smoke), reduce instances of sun-burn, eat a well-balanced diet with moderate amounts of red and processed meat (i.e. bacon with every meal every day is probably a bad idea), along with physical activity. 

Of course this is much easier said than done, because people often want quick-fix miracle cures/pills/whatever that lets them keep living unhealthy lives without feeling bad for it. Unfortunately there are no such shortcuts that are scientifically valid. Listening to Kathryn and Owen discuss the cancer risk from red and processed meat, along with the mechanistic explanation of 'how' was incredibly useful, and I hope you enjoy watching this Hangout :)
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Buddhini Samarasinghe

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Collections!

After the months of postponing, I finally had a chance to explore Collections. I know, I'm so late to the party that it's not even an after-party anymore. But I really do like being able to categorise all my posts by subject, and for ease of navigation I figured it's worth highlighting here. 

So without further ado, here are the five Collections I've curated. 

1. Cancer Biology: probably the most relevant Collection for those who follow me for my writing on cancer. Included is my Hallmarks of Cancer series, articles explaining how chemotherapy works, and lots of science media hype debunking!
https://plus.google.com//collection/MorsFB

2. Molecular Biology: non-cancer science writing, recommended if you want to understand more about what goes on inside a cell.
https://plus.google.com/collection/IfsZ9

3. STEM Women: Those of you who follow me know that I am a passionate advocate for women in STEM. Follow this collection for things I've posted relating to equality in STEM issues. See the +STEM Women on G+  page for more.
https://plus.google.com/collection/sLrsFB

4. Hangouts on Air: I don't always share every hangout I host to my profile page, mostly because I like to keep my profile for just the writing stuff. But sometimes the topics are just so cool it's worth sharing, and I should probably start doing this more often.
https://plus.google.com/collection/MqgsFB

5. Commentary and Photography: I have other interests outside of molecular biology! So this collection is about random topics like social media use, atheism, cooking, travel, photography etc. https://plus.google.com/collection/onRsFB

Image: Scanning electron micrograph of a cluster of breast cancer cells showing visual evidence of programmed cell death (apoptosis).
Image credit: Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images
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The Guardian of the Genome

I've been so busy these past few weeks that I never got a chance to share some good news. Since I started hosting Google Hangouts for my work a few months ago, the editor of the +Wellcome Trust science magazine known as +Mosaic wanted me to do the same for some of their features, kind of like an author Q&A. I've always been a massive fan of Mosaic ever since it launched a couple of years ago (I actually wrote about it back in Sept 2013 - https://goo.gl/rSDcFJ) so this was such exciting news for me!

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing author +Sue Armstrong about her article on the p53 cancer gene. Sue's article was intriguing because she starts off talking about families in Brazil that seem to be 'cursed' with cancer - read more at http://mosaicscience.com/story/brazils-cancer-curse.

I had a bunch of technical difficulties during this hangout, but I'm so glad the video recorded at the end :) If you have a spare 30 mins, watch this video to learn more about how p53 really is the guardian of our genome!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCaCik2bUZE
#MosaicHOA  
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Buddhini Samarasinghe

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The Guardian of the Genome

I've been so busy these past few weeks that I never got a chance to share some good news. Since I started hosting Google Hangouts for my work a few months ago, the editor of the +Wellcome Trust science magazine known as +Mosaic wanted me to do the same for some of their features, kind of like an author Q&A. I've always been a massive fan of Mosaic ever since it launched a couple of years ago (I actually wrote about it back in Sept 2013 - https://goo.gl/rSDcFJ) so this was such exciting news for me!

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing author +Sue Armstrong about her article on the p53 cancer gene. Sue's article was intriguing because she starts off talking about families in Brazil that seem to be 'cursed' with cancer - read more at http://mosaicscience.com/story/brazils-cancer-curse.

I had a bunch of technical difficulties during this hangout, but I'm so glad the video recorded at the end :) If you have a spare 30 mins, watch this video to learn more about how p53 really is the guardian of our genome!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCaCik2bUZE
#MosaicHOA  
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Buddhini Samarasinghe

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Weeknight celebration

One of the nicer things about living in London is how easy it is to get to places like Maitre Choux in South Kensington for dessert. Intense hit of pistachio, dark chocolate, and vanilla bean. Definitely worth a visit if you're ever in the area! 
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Buddhini Samarasinghe

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"Self-care" with books

2015 wasn't an easy year for several reasons. Adjusting to a new job, excessive amounts of travel, trying to buy a new house, moving across the country - all positive steps but all so incredibly exhausting because it's so hard to know at the time whether things will work out or not. So it was brilliant to have two weeks off during the Christmas holidays so I could truly catch up on doing the things that I enjoy doing. I've never been a fan of the 'self-care' concept - buying ridiculously priced pointless shit like moisturisers and pedicures just seemed meaningless to me - but I can totally get on board with splurging on books.

So imagine my pleasure when I stumbled across a beautifully bound hardcover edition of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. Wooo! The artwork, the paper, the binding - so so pretty! Reading for pleasure was something I didn't have enough time to do in 2015. I think 2016 will be very different :D

If anyone is interested in building up a similar collection, here's the link to Orion Books - https://www.orionbooks.co.uk/search.page?isbn=9781473200111
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Good morning friend +Buddhini Samarasinghe​
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The Immune System: A Grand Unifying Theory for Biomedical Research

Every year, the Edge Foundation asks a thought-provoking question (known as the Edge Annual Question) and invites scientists and intellectuals to contribute with essays. This year's Edge Annual Question is a predictive one. It asks, "What Do You Consider The Most Interesting Recent Scientific News? What Makes it Important?". I had the pleasure of being invited to submit a contribution again this year, and I really enjoyed writing this essay during the Christmas break :)

Edge solicits answers from people who are experts in a wide variety of fields, ranging from neuroscience to quantum physics, from psychology to sociology. For biomedical science, at first the obvious choice for a response would be something like CRISPR - indeed, many of the other responses have covered this fantastic 'genome editing' tool that allows us to manipulate our own DNA. But as I thought about the question, I realised that at the end of the day, CRISPR is still just a tool, much like gene cloning was several years ago. However, there are intriguing, broader discoveries within biomedical science, with exciting implications for human diseases; in my opinion these outshine the discovery of CRISPR.

I am talking about the immune system's role in disease.

"Since 430 BC we have known of biological structures and processes that protect the body against disease; but even today we are just beginning to understand how deeply involved they are in our lives. The immune system’s cellular sentries weave an intricate early warning network through the body; its signaling molecules—the cytokines—trigger and modulate our response to infection, including inflammation; it is involved in even so humble a process as the clotting of blood in a wound. Today we are beginning to grasp how—from cancer to diabetes, from heart disease to malaria, from dementia to depression—the immune system is involved at a fundamental level, providing us with the framework to understand, and to better treat these wide-ranging ailments"

When it comes to 'interesting scientific news', our self-interest will guarantee that anything we can do to extend and improve the quality of our lives will always be news. The immune system provides a unifying framework for understanding nearly every major condition that affects us, and on that basis it will always be newsworthy.

Full essay at http://edge.org/response-detail/26621
Image: Healthy human T-cell, one of the key components of our immune system (Wikipedia)

Happy New Year, everyone! :)

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Day 1 of NCRI 2015 Conference

I am at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) conference from today until Wednesday. It's the largest cancer research conference in the UK, and there are so many incredible researchers here sharing some really amazing findings from their fields. I'm going to try and post highlights here, but if you want to follow what's going on, you can check out my Twitter feed via https://twitter.com/DrHalfPintBuddy

One of the highlights today was a talk by Professor Charles Sawyers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre. He is one of the scientists who developed Imatinib (or Gleevec) for the treatment of a type of leukaemia known as CML - one of the first targeted treatments. 

Professor Sawyers talked about how the loss of two very important tumour suppressor genes, known as p53 and Rb (I've mentioned these before http://goo.gl/RfwqLr and http://goo.gl/m3p83P), can make prostate cancer cells change their behaviour, leading to a dramatic rise in resistance. The really weird thing is that these cells change through a mechanism known as 'lineage plasticity'. Why is this weird? Because this lineage plasticity is eerily similar to how adult cells can be made to switch back to a stem-cell state - these are known as iPSCs, or induced pluripotent stem cells - https://goo.gl/qJN3U7).

What does all this mean? It seems that cancer cells can hijack a normal cellular process in response to the stresses they encounter as a result of treatment. Being able to change in response to treatment is unfortunately how cancers are able to develop resistance, and why it can sometimes feel like cancer is one step ahead while we're constantly playing catch-up. Cancers evolve, and understanding the mechanism behind their evolution might be how we can finally develop more effective treatments. 

#NCRI2015
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I like u'r information which helps me to become good doctor to save life of people who deserves it.
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Cancer Immunotherapy

Since I started working at +Cancer Research UK, one of the first questions I asked the Scicomms team was "why aren't you doing Google HOAs on the amazing research that CRUK funds?". Because I've had a few years of experience hosting science HOAs and because of the thriving science communities on G+ would love this, I proposed a partnership between +Science on Google+ and +Cancer Research UK to produce and host a cancer HOA. The first topic we picked was Cancer Immunotherapy. 

Working for an organisation as large as CRUK that funds some of the best research in the world allowed me to access two of the world leading experts on the topic of cancer immunotherapy. After months of coordinating with various teams in Press, Social Media, and Scicomms, we finally did it! +Ben Willcox  and +Frances Balkwill  were fantastic guests, clearly explaining how important immunotherapy is, and how it works. It was also fun to tag team the questions with my co-host +Kat Arney. In case you missed the live broadcast, you can watch the discussion on YouTube here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5McTl469Wo

Feedback would be much appreciated, because I hope this will be the first of many HOAs on cancer research. On a final note, it's been absolutely wonderful to hear from the patients and families who are directly benefiting from these new drugs (via comments on the Event Page https://goo.gl/HdRWDr). It's inspiring to hear from them, and motivates me to keep doing outreach this way. 

#ScienceEveryday   #CRUKHOA  
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how does the immune system of the cancer cells vary with the normal cells ? is there a way to use the virology to target the cancer cells thereby reducing the immune of those cells alone and kill those cells ? +Buddhini Samarasinghe do you think this is possible ? though the immune may differ widely on the type of cancer, just a thought.
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Red meat and cancer risk

The news is awash with stories about how red and processed meats have been classified as carcinogens in the same category as tobacco. But what exactly does this mean? Let's unpick this a little bit before throwing out the bacon with the bathwater. 

There have been several excellent bits of writing that explain what this means - the first is by Ed Yong (http://goo.gl/br9OU7) and the second by CRUK* (http://goo.gl/ELDzCI). These are well-worth a read if you want to learn more. 

Basically, the key bit of information to remember is that this is not a risk assessment, it is a hazard identification. A great analogy (stolen from the CRUK article above) is to think of banana skins - they definitely can cause accidents, but in practice it doesn't happen very often, and isn't as severe as being in a car accident. But under the hazard identification approach, banana skins and cars would be in the same category because they both definitely cause accidents. The severity of the accident is not discussed, and that's where we tend to get lost with the breathless press releases on this topic. 

So should you stop eating red and processed meat? The answer is all about the dreaded, boring M word - moderation. If you're always eating red and processed meat, over years and years, then that's probably not good for you. But meat in moderation (i.e. not too much and not too often) is still okay, and is definitely not as bad as smoking is. The thing with diet and disease is that reality is often rather boring; there are no miracle diets or magical juice cleansers that will give you eternal youth. There are no superfoods that offset the damage of binge-drinking every weekend. That's just not how our bodies work. 

What you can do to prevent cancer is eat plenty of fruit and veg with lots of fibre while cutting back on things like alcohol, salt, red and processed meats. And definitely avoid sunburns and smoking. 

*In the interest of full disclosure, I work at the charity CRUK as a science communicator. 

#ScienceEveryday  
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But our body needs some nutrients that come only from the meat , that is true that if you eat anything in excess that will definitely harm you likewise here also
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