Women’s History Month Special: Stories of Little Women – Hasini Jayatilaka

May 8, 2020



“…Be passionate, persistent and work hard. Success does not come overnight, but it is an accumulation of hard work spanning many years.”

— Hasini Jayatilaka


This Women’s History Month at Mand Labs we focus our attention on the incredible “Little Women” who are following their passion with grit and determination. In this blog series throughout March, we bring you stories of a few dynamic young women who are paving the way for our generation to soar right through the glass ceiling.

Meet Hasini Jayatilaka, the young scientist, who in just a few years into her research has brought hope to millions of cancer patients with her significant discovery. This discovery will help in slowing down the spread of cancer by directly affecting the complex mechanism behind the spread.

After completing her postdoctoral research from Stanford University School of Medicine, Hasini recently joined Syneos Health as a consultant. This young scientist has also made it to the Forbes list 30 Under 30 – Science 2019.

She spoke to Urmila Marak, Head of Communications at Mand Labs, about what got her interested in taking up her study on cancer and how her discovery can help in cancer treatment. Excerpts.



1. You have discovered a signalling pathway that blocks the spread of cancer. Could you please elaborate more on the findings – What it is all about and how will this discovery help in cancer treatment?

My team and I discovered that cancer cells can communicate with each other based on how they are closely packed. They communicate through two molecules called interleukin 6 and interleukin 8. Like anything else in nature, when things get too packed, this signal is enhanced causing them to move away faster from the primary tumor and spread to a new site. So, when we block this signal using a drug cocktail that we developed, we can stop the communication between the cancer cells and slow down its spread.

Ninety percent of cancer-related deaths are caused due to metastasis. Our finding is significant because currently there are no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved therapeutics that target metastasis alone. In fact, metastasis is thought of as a by-product of tumor growth. It is believed that if we shrink the tumor we can stop its spread. However, we successfully slowed down the spread of cancer, not by shrinking the tumor, but by directly affecting the complex mechanism behind the spread.



2. Tell us more about yourself. What inspired you to take up this study on cancer?

I started working in the lab of Dr. Denis Wirtz as an undergraduate research assistant during my second year of university. At Johns Hopkins University, it is mandatory for undergraduate students to complete at least one semester of research. I chose to do my research in Dr. Wirtz’s lab after I had seen him present at a seminar. His enthusiasm and passion for his work on cancer metastasis is what drew me to research on this subject.

As an undergraduate research assistant, I was given to look at how cancer cells move in a 3D Collagen I Matrix that recapitulated in a dish after migrating cells are exposed to the human body. This was new and exciting for me as most studies had been conducted in 2D flat plastic dishes that really weren’t representative of what was happening in our bodies.

During this time, I attended a seminar conducted by Dr. Bonnie Bassler from Princeton University. She talked about how bacterial cells would communicate with each other based on their population density and perform a specific action. This was a light-bulb moment for me! I thought “wow”, I see this in my tumor cells when it comes to their movement. The idea for my project was thus born. I hypothesized that the movement of cancer cells could be regulated by how closely packed they are in the tumor microenvironment.

We then recruited undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and professors from multiple institutions and disciplines to come together and work on the idea that I conceived as a sophomore in college. After years of experiments together and merging diverse perspectives and ideas, we identified a new signaling pathway that controlled cell density dependent migration in cancer cells.

We decided that we wanted to block this pathway and see if we could slow down the spread of cancer. We implemented this in pre-clinical animal models. We came up with a drug cocktail that consisted of Tocilizumab, which is currently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, and Reparixin, a molecule currently in clinical trials for breast cancer.

Interestingly, what we found was that the cocktail of these two drugs only targeted metastasis and not tumor growth. This was significant because currently there aren’t any FDA approved therapeutics that target metastasis alone.



3. How do you think as an influencer in your space you can motivate more girls in STEM?

I think part of encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM is by showing them how women, who are currently pursuing STEM, are “ordinary” like any of us. When I was younger (and even now) I look at women who are successful in STEM and think they are superhuman and I don’t have the superhuman talent that they possess. However, what I have learned is that these women who I look up to are just like me. They all enjoy a good laugh, they all want to have fun, and they all want to pursue ideas that interest them. Showing that “ordinary” side of me, has helped me motivate girls to pursue more STEM careers.


4. As a young girl pursuing a career in STEM, what major challenges do you face?

Working with difficult scientists. Working with anyone difficult takes a lot of patience and self-restraint to tolerate the toxic environment. It’s important to teach girls how to navigate these kind of situations. In my case, once the projects ended, I was able to stop working with those scientists and cautiously pick who I wanted to work with.


5. Why do you think it is important to introduce STEM education to children at an early age?

I think with anything else in life it’s important to expose children to all opportunities available to them and let them pursue what interests them. Introducing children to STEM at a young age gets them excited about the possibilities that exists.



6. What advice would you love to give your peers and other young girls who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

I would advise them to pursue a career that they love. I wake up every day excited to enter the lab and work on challenging projects. I would advise them to be passionate, persistent and work hard as success does not come overnight, but it is an accumulation of hard work spanning many years. My professional journey has been hard but I persisted because I got support from friends and family and I am grateful to be where I am today. I would also advise them to be kind and supportive to peers as individual success contributes to collective success. I wouldn’t have been here without my peers.


7. How do you like to relax when you are not working.

A lot of my free time now is spent meeting with friends and skyping with my family in Sri Lanka. Sometimes when I have time to myself, I like reading, experimenting with recipes, and watching TV shows and movies. I also like to work out and stay active. This usually involves yoga and running. Anything that takes me away from my phone and computer is relaxing.

We wish Hasini every success in her research and future endeavors! Follow Hasini Jayatilaka on Twitter @HasiniJt 

About Author
Urmila, who is a Big Data and STEM enthusiast, works as the head of communications with Mand Labs. She is a believer in transformation of life and career through STEM. She can be reached on Twitter @umarak

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