Our People
Dr Upekha Liyanage

Dr Upekha Liyanage is a Research Officer in the Cancer and Population Studies Group.

What inspired you to choose medical research as your career?

While I was working as a doctor in Sri Lanka in a hospital setting, I frequently encountered people being treated for cancer. I have seen how their lives take a drastic turn, once they are diagnosed with a cancer. Experiencing these real-life scenarios motivated me to go beyond clinical work, to delve into research to solve this important problem. I was fascinated about the rapidly expanding field of cancer genetics, which has immense applications.

Tell us about what you do at QIMR Berghofer.

Melanoma and keratinocyte cancer are causing a significant health burden in Australia. In my current project, I am applying the genetic risk scores to predict the skin cancer risk in a Queensland cohort. Also, I am using large-scale genetic data sets to identify novel genes associated with melanoma risk.

What do you hope to achieve?

My PhD research contributed a lot to skin cancer genetics. We were able to double the number of identified risk genes for keratinocyte cancer along with potential drug targets. In addition, my causal inference work extended the knowledge of modifiable risk factors, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin D on skin cancer risk. My post-doctoral work involves the application of the polygenic risk scores. Polygenic risk scores can be used to estimate an individual’s lifetime genetic risk of disease. We are investigating whether the genetic profiling may benefit, especially high-risk people. Although genetic risk prediction is proved to be a powerful tool from current research, it is not embedded in clinical practice yet for targeted screening and to support diagnosis. Needless to say, early identification is instrumental in reducing skin cancer death rates.

What could be achieved in your field of research with additional funding support?

In genome-wide association studies, the larger the sample size, the more significant and important the findings. Additional funding will be useful to recruit more subjects in order to reach our final outcome
of risk identification and better treatments for skin cancer.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?

Nothing brings me more pleasure and joy than spending time with my cats, Milo and Garfield. Apart from that, I love to visit new places, in Australia and other countries. Exploring new cultures is a passion of mine. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has restricted us somewhat from this hobby. I hope it changes soon.

Name two people, living or dead, you’d want to sit next to at a dinner party.

1. Sir David Frederick Attenborough – I would love to hear adventurous stories about wildlife and nature from every corner of earth.
2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I am a huge fan of the fictional Sherlock Holmes series. I have a few questions about some contradictory situations in the books, especially how Sherlock Holmes solved the crime, “A Study in Scarlet.”

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