New Faculty Member Ashani Weeraratna Strengthens Melanoma and Aging Expertise at The Wistar Institute

New Faculty Member Ashani Weeraratna Strengthens Melanoma and Aging Expertise at The Wistar Institute

June 8, 2011

PHILADELPHIA - (June 9, 2011) – The Wistar Institute has appointed Ashani Weeraratna, Ph.D., as assistant professor in the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program of the Institute’s Cancer Center. Weeraratna comes to Wistar from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health. Her research explores both the nature of aggressive melanoma and the relationship between cancer and aging.

“Dr. Weeraratna’s work is at the forefront of melanoma research and we are proud to have her as part of the Wistar team,” said Wistar President and CEO Russel E. Kaufman, M.D. “Her expertise will act as a perfect complement to our current research efforts in melanoma and the tumor microenvironment, and how a spreading cancer can sustain itself by co-opting normal biological processes.”

Born in Sri Lanka, Weeraratna earned a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Oncology at George Washington University Medical Center’s Department of Pharmacology in 1998. From 1998 to 2000, she was post-doctoral fellow at The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, before joining the National Human Genome Research Institute as a staff scientist. Since 2003 she has been a staff scientist in The Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Immunology at the National Institute on Aging, where she would later go on to head the laboratory’s Cancer Biology Unit.

"We recruited Dr. Weeraratna not only on the strength of her research, but also on how well her expertise bolsters our existing research base,” said Dario C. Altieri, Director of The Wistar Institute Cancer Center and Wistar’s Chief Scientific Officer. “Both melanoma and biological basis of aging are acknowledged Wistar strengths, and we feel her insight into these subjects will be of tremendous value to her colleagues."

The primary focus of the Weeraratna laboratory is the study of how melanoma spreads, or metastasizes. While early-stage melanoma can often be effectively halted through surgery, later-stage melanoma is notoriously aggressive, which makes melanoma the deadliest form of skin cancer.

The progression of melanoma from early to late stage involves a series of chemical signaling changes within the cell, often described in terms of “pathways” as these signals come in the form of a chain of chemical interactions. In particular, Weeraratna focuses on the Wnt signaling pathway and how changes in genes and their protein products involved in this pathway can lead to changes in how malignant cells multiply, move throughout the body, and invade other cells. Such knowledge, Weeraratna believes, could lead to new therapies and overall understanding of how melanoma cells evade our immune system, and acquire resistance to chemotherapy.

Weeraratna is also extremely interested in exploring the effects of natural aging processes on the malignant progression of tumor cells. As an example, melanoma incidence is increased in elderly patients, who also have a worse prognosis, and this could be due to a number of age-related factors, such as decreases in adaptive immunity, but may also be due to changes in the aging tumor microenvironment. Using melanoma cells and both young and old normal skin cells as a model, Weeraratna is trying to unravel just what these changes may be, and how they affect tumor progression.

“Dr. Weeraratna fills an important gap at Wistar with her studies on the biology of melanoma, which focus on signaling pathways such as Wnt signaling, that connect fetal development with cancer,” said Meenhard Herlyn, D.V.M., D.Sc., Wistar professor and director of the Institute’s Melanoma Research Center. “Her work also brings together the cancer and aging fields and it will provide us with a new understanding of cancer development in older individuals to lay the groundwork for new strategies in cancer therapy.

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