Using advanced mapping technologies to improve immunotherapy for lung cancer

Dr Arutha Kulasinghe presents his research at Cure Cancer's WBBYO 2023.

Dr Arutha Kulasinghe

Dr Arutha Kulasinghe’s 2024 grant is funded by Cure Cancer.

He is based at Frazer Institute, The University of Queensland (UQ).

Dr Arutha Kulasinghe is a Senior Research Fellow and the Group Leader of the Clinical-oMx Lab at the UQ’s Frazer Institute, which is part of the Translational Research Institute. Arutha majored in Medical Microbiology in South Africa and moved to Australia in 2013 for his PhD, which he completed at the Queensland University of Technology in 2017. Having seen relatives suffer from the disease, and witnessing first-hand how it impacts families and communities, he was determined to move into cancer research with a specific focus on immunotherapy. 

Arutha views immunotherapies, a cancer treatment that stimulates an immune response to equip the body to fight tumours, as a game changer. Using novel spatial-mapping technology, he is determined to use the full potential of immunotherapies for lung cancer (previously, he also worked with head and neck cancers and even COVID-19). 

In 2023, Arutha was named Cure Cancer’s Researcher of the Year and had his work published in prestigious journals including Immunology, European Respiratory Journal, Immunology & Cell Biology, and GEN Biotechnology.

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

In Australia, lung cancer is the 5th most commonly diagnosed cancer with an estimated 14,529 people, including non-smokers, facing the devastating diagnosis every year. With ​a mere 5-year survival rate of ~20%, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the most common group of lung cancers, is ​the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Australia and globally. 

Immunotherapies,  as the “next generation of cancer therapies”, offer hope to people living with lung cancer, benefiting 15-30% of patients. But to maximise the effectiveness of these therapies, there is an urgent need for predictive biomarkers: simple tests that help identify patients who are likely to respond well, reducing the risk of side effects, and avoiding unnecessary expensive treatments, which can cost up to $150,000 per patient per year.

Arutha hopes to develop these tests by utilising spatial biology, cutting-edge issue mapping techniques that he has pioneered over the years. 

Dr Arutha Kulasinghe’s cell atlasing approach

In spatial cellular mapping, high-resolution technology helps to show the biology of lung tumours and cell-to-cell interactions, enabling scientists to understand the ways in which the precise activity and geography within these tumour microenvironments can dictate a lung cancer patient’s response to immunotherapy.

In this Cure Cancer-funded research, Arutha aims to revolutionise our understanding and treatment of lung cancer by making it possible to map lung tumours and determine the best approach for treatment as soon as patients are diagnosed. Utilising cutting-edge tissue mapping tools, he and his team will simultaneously examine hundreds of biomarkers in lung tumours that either respond or are resistant to current immunotherapies. The ultimate goal is to develop a predictive biomarker test for lung cancer that will provide clinicians with crucial information about a patient’s treatment path at the time of their lung cancer diagnosis, offering the best chances of survival and improved outcomes. It would enable effective personalised treatment based on each patient’s unique tumour profile, preventing unnecessary side effects and costs.

Dr Arutha Kulasinghe's inspiration

“I was in the operating theatre at 2am in Colombo, Sri Lanka, when my grandfather’s football-sized tumour was being removed, with his health deteriorating rapidly,” Arutha shares. “I was also involved with his care after the operation and until he died. This experience motivated me to pursue a career in translational cancer research, with the goal of developing early detection and screening assays that could improve survival rates and quality of life.”

The key to advances in treatments, he believes, is for people working in different disciplines to seek solutions collectively. He gained a more in-depth understanding of how essential this is when he visited laboratories in Europe and the US, where he observed clinicians, scientists, biomedical engineers, patient advocates, patients and allied health care professionals working together in lab environments to identify better ways to diagnose and treat cancer.

“Since returning to Brisbane, I’ve tried to implement the methodologies I observed, and to be more patient-centric in my approach,” he says. “I believe we’re ultimately ‘better than the sum of our parts’.”

Arutha collaborates closely with Michel Itel, an inspiring patient advocate and mentor from Lung Foundation Australia who uses his own experience of living with stage 4 lung cancer to empower others affected by lung disease.

The importance of funding

The Cure Cancer grant will provide critical funding that Arutha needs not only to become an independent researcher, but to investigate “important clinically-driven research questions for unmet clinical needs”. 

“Cure Cancer grants are critical to fostering and progressing new ideas and cutting-edge research. Cure Cancer funding will allow my lab to develop the next generation of predictive signatures for lung cancer immunotherapies. This research will put us at the forefront of translational lung cancer research internationally, contributing to new biomarkers and therapies for individual patients.”

“We all know family and friends who’ve suffered from this deadly disease and finding better, more effective treatments is of the utmost importance.” This instils in him a drive to work hard and persevere, and he is “eternally grateful” to Cure Cancer donors and fundraisers for supporting his research.

“There’s been exponential growth of technologies and therapies to identify, monitor and treat cancer, and these treatments are becoming more and more tailored to individual patients. So, in the future, we’ll be able to use precision medicine approaches that will result in better patient outcomes and hopefully, cures.”

Together, we can cure cancer.

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