During Dr Chamindie Punyadeera’s undergraduate studies at the University of Botswana in Gaborone, she worked as a research trainee at Anglo American Research Laboratories to gain experience in developing analytical methods for mining purposes.
While completing a MPhil degree at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, her research was focused on mapping various tribal movements in South Africa by using chemical methods to analyse the pottery made by tribal communities. She also pursued a PhD at the same University in obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. A personal interest in this particular research project, at the time, Dr Punyadeera’s mother was newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Dr Punyadeera says she wanted to understand the disease mechanism in order to help her mother’s condition.
With an interest in industrial research, she completed her postdoctoral research at the University of Maastricht in collaboration with Merck Pharmaceuticals (former Organon Pharmeceuticals, Oss the Netherlands). Her postdoc research entailed developing a tissue culture model system to accurately characterise synthetic steroid compounds produced by Organon, with a focus on developing new targets to treat endometriosis (a benign gynaecological disorder). This postdoctoral fellowship allowed Punyadeera to become an independent researcher and the privilege of working with Professor Jacques Donnez (Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc, Belgium). Her research team’s focus is to unravel the diagnostic potential of human saliva. Dr Punyadeera says human saliva has gained momentum as an alternative diagnostic fluid to blood and urine due to its simplicity of collection, non-invasiveness, and allows multiple sampling possibilities and ideal for remote area setting and ideal in young and elderly. However, the advancement of saliva as a diagnostic fluid has being impeded due to the lack of the advancement in sensitive detection technologies and the paucity of our knowledge of saliva physiology. In the Punyadeera lab, the primary goal is to develop diagnostic assays for detecting biomolecules that are indicative for ischemic heart disease and head and neck cancer. Both of these applications are vital as cardiovascular disease is on the rise in Australia due to an ageing and a growing population. Every 11 minutes, one person in Autralia dies of cardiovascular disease complications. Early detection methods are imperative for head and neck cancer as the five year survival rate is less than 50%. The Punyadeera lab is working with a large number of clinical collaborators to translate their research findings into clinical practice and make it better for the both patients and enable clinical management of the disease easy. “We were the first in the world to demonstrate that saliva harbours a cardiac muscle tissue specific biomolecule (natriuretic peptide, NT-proBNP) and this biomolecule was associated with heart failure,” Dr Punyadeera says. The team have been also invited to take part in the “SCREEN-HF” clinical trial, largest clinical trial (over 6,000 recruits) in Australia and Professor Henry Krum (Director, Monash Centre of Cardiovascular Research and Education in Therapeutics, University of Monash) has agreed to collect saliva in addition to blood. The team has also identified a common inflammatory marker (C Reactive protein, CRP) in saliva to be associated with the initiation and progression of ischemic heart disease. They are now in the process of applying these salivary biomarkers in screening for high risk individuals who are prone to developing CVD. Punyadeera’s cancer research project directly aligns with the strategic cancer stream at the UQ Diamantina Institute and she says she joined UQDI because of its reputation for translating basic research concepts into clinical practice. “Being part of a large translational research institute and having access to patient materials certainly make it easy for the progression of our work. More so, we have access to the state of the art facilities to conduct our research. Especially our cancer program benefits from the interactions and discussions with researchers from UQDI,” Dr Punyadeera says. Punyadeera is hoping to deliver a diagnostic test to the clinic to detect either CVD or HNSCC or both. More so, she says if they are able to start screening programs for these debilitating diseases in Australia, it will enable early intervention: saving lives and money. Dr Punyadeera has a personal interest for these tests to be available for people in rural communities in parts of Australian as well as developing countries. “I am a firm believer of pursuing research to better people’s lives either by introducing methods to assess risks of developing disease to by educating people to lengthen their longevity.”