Vihandha Wickramasinghe

veski innovation fellow

In March 2017, Dr Vihandha Wickramasinghe was presented with a veski innovation fellowship worth $150,000 over three years for his research project entitled ‘Targeting the mRNA processing machinery in cancer’. The funding of this fellowship will be matched in cash and in-kind by his host organisation Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

Project summary: Transformational biomedical imaging technologies

Dr Vihandha Wickramasinghe’s paradigm-shifting research focuses on understanding the fundamental biology of gene expression and how it is altered in the development of cancer cells. His goal is to find new ways to intervene when normal quality control processes within the cell go awry. 

At the world class Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Dr Wickramasinghe leads the RNA Biology and Cancer Laboratory where he investigates the molecular basis of how mRNA is selectively processed and exported from the nucleus into the cytoplasm and its emerging links to cancer. 

Dr Wickramasinghe’s research will use state of the art genomic, molecular and cell biological approaches developed during his time at the University of Cambridge with some of the most renowned experts in molecular biology and cancer research, Professor Ron Laskey, FRS, CBE, FMedSci, and Professor Ashok Venkitaraman, FMedSci.  

Enabled by the veski innovation fellowship, Dr Wickramasinghe’s expertise in molecular biology establishes a new field of research in RNA Biology, based in Victoria.  The Wickramasinghe laboratory provides a new platform to enhance the knowledge economy in Victoria through the attraction and training of promising cell biologists and translational researchers.  

One of Dr Wickramasinghe’s key projects, researching the mechanisms of regulating gene expression via selective messenger RNA (mRNA) is seen as a critical step in the gene expression pathway, which is altered in cancer.  Through this research, Dr Wickramasinghe and his team have demonstrated that mRNA export is not constitutive, but is highly selective and can regulate distinct biological processes through poorly understood mechanisms. 

His second project is researching the effect of alternative mRNA splicing on the human proteome, which has emerged as a key mechanism for enabling biological complexity within the human genome.  However, the extent to which this increased genomic complexity contributes to the generation of proteomic diversity is largely unknown.  Dr Wickramasinghe and his team have identified this fundamental biological question as one of critical importance to human health, given the recent identification of perturbed RNA splicing as causative factor in cancer.

The Cancer Council of Australia advises that an estimated 134,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Australia in 2017, rising to 150,000 by 2020.  Cancer is a leading cause of death in Australia (more than 44,000 people died from cancer in 2014) and, having lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 18, Dr Wickramasinghe is deeply passionate about the importance of his work and translating research into potential new, novel targets for cancer therapy.

The establishment of Dr Wickramasinghe’s RNA Biology and Cancer laboratory at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre offers opportunities for new and expanded industry collaborations.   The Oncogenic Signalling and Growth Control division, which Dr Wickramasinghe joins, has strong links with the pharmaceutical industry.  This collaboration saw the development of the world’s first selective inhibitors of RNA Polymerase I transcription, a new class of therapeutic.  As an integrated member of this team, Dr Wickramasinghe will access these collaborative industry networks with a view to progressing his discoveries to the clinical arena.  

Dr Wickramasinghe will also be engaging with the CRC for Cancer Therapeutics.  The CRC is an important part of the cancer research ecosystem, having all the necessary skills sets for drug discovery including high throughput screening platforms coupled with structural biology and innovative medicinal chemistry.  

In addition to his research, Dr Wickramasinghe enjoys the opportunity to work with the next generation of researchers through his role as Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Sir Peter MacCallum Department of Oncology at the University of Melbourne.  His experience has taught him that an openness to international opportunities and experiencing a diverse range of research environments helps to fast track young careers. 




Key facts

  • Dr Vihandha Wickramasinghe is Head of the RNA Biology and Cancer Laboratory.
  • Collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry saw the development of the world’s first selective inhibitors of RNA Polymerase I transcription, a new class of therapeutic. 
  • He was awarded a high prestigious Medical Research Council pre-doctoral fellowship to undertake his PhD studies at the University of Cambridge.  



“'Investing in fundamental biological research is critical to ensure that scientific breakthroughs can be directly translated into novel therapeutics for a disease as prevalent as cancer”

Vihandha Wickramasinghe