Unlocking Cells: Dr Perera’s groundbreaking research

By Indira Laisram
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Dr Palalle G. Tharushi Perera (second from right) along Professor Elena Ivanova (extreme left) // Photo supplied

Dr Palalle G. Tharushi Perera, an early career researcher (ECR) at RMIT’s School of Science, right now at an exciting cusp of her career.

With a strong academic background and a passion for innovation under Professor Elena Ivanova (RMIT, School of Science), Perera’s research  holds the potential to make significant contributions to cancer treatment and drug delivery.

Perera’s recent work, where she is listed as the first author, delves into the utilisation of non-ionising radiation, specifically radio frequencies, to induce permeability in bacterial and eukaryotic cells.

She explains, “Our research focuses on non-ionising radio frequencies. When these frequencies interact with biological material, minimal damage occurs.

“Unlike ionising radiation, non-ionising radiation is not harmful, whereas ionising radiation has enough energy to remove electrons from chemical compounds when they interact with them, altering their composition and leading to cell damage or death.

“The intriguing aspect is that we utilise a fixed frequency of 18 GHz. Through our experiments, we have demonstrated that various types of bacteria and even mammalian cells become permeable, meaning their membranes open up, under this frequency. We have tested this phenomenon using different types of nanoparticles, and fluorescent dextran molecules, and have confirmed that bacterial cells indeed become permeable for a period of nine minutes.

“This permeability is reversible; once the radiation is removed, the cells remain permeable for nine minutes before returning to their original state of impermeability.”

Photo supplied

Perera’s research has demonstrated that exposure to a fixed frequency of 18 GHz can render bacterial and millennial cells permeable, allowing for the introduction of foreign materials, such as genetic material or nanoparticles, into the cells.

Originally from Sri Lanka, Perera completed her academic journey in Australia, where she pursued her bachelor’s degree in biomedical science, honours, and ultimately her PhD at Swinburne University of Technology. Her doctoral research, completed in 2020, focused on investigating the effects of electromagnetic fields on cell membrane permeability in both eukaryotic cells and bacteria.

Drawing from her extensive experience as a tutor at Swinburne University and her involvement in research at the Australian Synchrotron’s Far IR/THz beamline, Perera joined RMIT University in 2021.

Her research interests encompass a diverse array of topics, including liposomes, cell culture, bioassays, neuronal differentiation, electron microscopy, and radiation-induced genetic transfer in eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells.

The significance of Perera’s current findings extends beyond the laboratory, with potential applications in drug delivery and gene therapy. By leveraging non-ionising radiation to enhance cell permeability, Perera’s technique offers a promising avenue for targeted drug delivery and precise genetic manipulation.

Asked if this will now impact cancer treatments, she says, “That’s a topic for further research. What we’ve accomplished is establishing the foundation that this technique can effectively introduce foreign materials, particularly genetic materials, into bacteria. Now, we aim to extend this approach to millennial eukaryotic cells, expanding our capabilities. This foreign material can be adjusted the way we want it to.”

She adds that collaborations with esteemed institutions such as the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), the University of Melbourne and other industry partners have facilitated the advancement of her research endeavours.

Perera’s journey in academia has been marked by perseverance and dedication, exemplifying the resilience of women in STEM fields. Despite career interruptions due to personal and global challenges, including the birth of her first child and the COVID-19 pandemic, she remains steadfast in her commitment to scientific inquiry.

Encouraging other women to pursue careers in STEM, especially considering Australia’s significant underrepresentation of women in the field, she emphasises the importance of perseverance.

As she continues her research at RMIT and assumes a new role as an adjunct research fellow at Swinburne University, Perera remains driven by her passion for discovery.


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