Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, School of Public Health
Department of Oncology and the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, School of Medicine
In the world of cancer research, Ashani Weeraratna is known for making breakthroughs.
In 2002, a paper she co-wrote challenged some of the established beliefs about the signals that drive the spread of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. The surprising findings from the study rattled many other researchers in the field. “I was a postdoc, and the signaling pathway we discovered played an unexpected role in cancer,” she recalls. “But the data were there.”
Weeraratna’s work led her down a path of cancer research that, despite its utmost relevance, remains underdeveloped: examining the role that aging plays.
“Really the number one prognostic factor for cancer is aging—and the cancer in older patients is often more aggressive and harder to treat. Yet only a handful of people around the world really work on this,” she says. “It’s been fascinating to explore this and discover all these new things.”
In 2016, Weeraratna and her lab were the first to look at the role of aging microenvironments — the normal cells and structures surrounding a tumor—in driving metastasis.
Weeraratna joined Johns Hopkins University as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of cancer biology. In addition to expanding her melanoma research, she plans to build a strong aging and cancer program within the Bloomberg School of Public Health where she is the new E.V. McCollum Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
She is jointly appointed in the School of Medicine’s Department of Oncology and the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Care Center.
For Weeraratna, coming to Johns Hopkins is a natural return home. She started her medical career as a research technician in the Kimmel Center’s oncology unit, and returned there in 1998 for her postdoctoral fellowship in the Experimental Therapeutics and Pharmacology lab.
Weeraratna took on this role after eight years with the Wistar Institute, an international leader in biomedical research. Most recently, she was co-leader of its Immunology, Microenvironment, and Metastasis program.
Weeraratna will become president of the Society of Melanoma Research, the same organization that recognized her as “Young Investigator of the Year” in 2006.
Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Lesotho in southern Africa, Weeraratna, who goes by “Ashi,” took an interest in cancer research from a young age. She came to the U.S. in 1988 to pursue those ambitions, studying biology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland before earning her PhD in molecular and cellular oncology at George Washington University.
After her post-doctoral work at Hopkins, Weeraratna landed at NIH, as a scientist in the National Human Genome Research Institute. She worked with Jeffrey Trent, whose lab had just identified the Wnt-5a protein as being upregulated in melanoma—a significant discovery for the field.
The first decade of her lab work, she says, was devoted to understanding Wnt-5A’s role in driving metastasis— activating signals on cells that made them leave the primary tumor site and colonize distant organs, resist therapy, and evade the immune system.
Weeraratna moved next to NIH’s National Institutes on Aging, heading its cancer biology unit. Though her specialty remained melanoma, here she began to advance her research on aging and cancer.
At the Wistar Institute, Weeraratna’s lab focused on both of her specialties. “It’s one of the best places in the world to do melanoma research, and this is also where my work on aging and cancer has truly blossomed,” she says.
Her work in melanoma prevention includes a public health approach. For example, she helped lead a campaign to introduce sunblock dispensers throughout Philadelphia and talk to elementary, middle and high school children about the dangers of tanning.