Young Sri Lankan scientist paving the way

Wednesday, 12 February 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Sandani Samarajeewa, a past pupil of Girls’ High School Kandy, earned her Ph.D. in Polymer Chemistry/Nanomedicine from Texas A&M University, USA in May 2013, where she was the recipient of the Distinguished Graduate Student Award for Excellence in Doctoral Research.  Officials say that to be nominated for this award is truly an honour and an accomplishment in itself, due to the strenuous eligibility requirements. Sandani grew up in Kandy, Sri Lanka, completed her local Advanced Level exams and attended the University of Peradeniya for a brief period before she left home to study abroad. She received her B.Sc. in Chemistry from Texas A&M University in 2008 and Masters’ degree in polymer chemistry from Washington University in Saint Louis in 2009, following up with a Ph.D. Sandani’s doctoral dissertation was conducted under the guidance of Prof. Karen L. Wooley, a globally-respected chemist in the field of materials and polymer chemistry. Sandani’s research was focused on the development of degradable nanoparticles for applications in drug delivery.  Her research contributions to nanomedicine were featured in an article titled “Program of Excellence in Nanotechnology Spotlight on Sandani Samarajeewa” in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Newsletter. Sandani has authored a dozen research articles in competitive peer-reviewed scientific literature, and the remarkable impact of her research contributions is evident by the one 130 citations her scientific articles have received within a short period of being published. The use of nanotechnology in medicine and more specifically drug delivery has received significant attention in the past few decades. The primary goal of administrating therapeutic materials via a drug delivery vehicle is to reduce toxicity and side effects associated with the naked drug itself. For example, conventional chemotherapy results in multiple undesirable side-effects to the patient that includes hair loss, appetite loss, fatigue and pain, whereas nanoparticle-based targeted chemotherapy has shown to be effective in minimising these side-effects. Although the pharmaceutical industry is heavily investing on nanoparticles to reduce toxicity and side effects of drugs, nanocarrier systems themselves may impose risks to the patient.  Sandani’s doctoral research was focused on developing a degradable nanocarrier system that can undergo disassembly upon drug delivery, in order to minimise toxicity effects of the carrier materials. Using fundamental principles in organic chemistry, intricate therapeutic delivery vehicles with cleavable connecting units were designed to facilitate biological clearance via breakage of the polymeric nanoassemblies. These smart nanovehicles were encapsulated with therapeutic agents (anti-cancer drugs or genetic materials) and pre-programmed to release the toxic materials via disassembly under external trigger. For example, in her collaborative work with Covidien Pharmaceuticals, nanoparticles were incorporated with stimuli-responsive linkages that would potentially undergo breakage in the cancerous environment (in the presence of elevated levels of enzymes or other biomolecules), promoting the release of the entrapped highly-toxic anti-cancer agents. Additionally, Sandani was a key team member of the collaborative research between the Washington University School of Medicine and Texas A&M University, funded by an $ 18 million grant from the NIH-NHLBI Program of Excellence in Nanotechnology, where she developed a novel series of positively-charged degradable nanomaterials for gene imaging and regulation in lung injury.   Some of these nanocarriers have been further fine-tuned, and are currently being evaluated for their biological performance in live animals. Sandani has presented her research at more than fifteen conferences, including international, national and invited research seminars. In recognition of her research, she has received several awards including the American Chemical Society Macro Letters International Award at the 14th IUPAC Conference on Polymer and Organic Chemistry in Doha, Qatar, and the Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering TA Instruments Award at the National American Chemical Society Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Upon completion of her doctoral studies, Sandani has been working as a process engineer at the Intel Corporation’s Technology Development division in Hillsboro, Oregon, USA, where she continues to meddle with the nanoscale, and apply her superior expertise in nanotechnology to benefit the semiconductor industry.  When asked about her, a professor said: “There is no question that Sandani is an extremely gifted individual that is on the threshold of a great scientific career.”