As a PhD student, Tilini Gunatillake was given the opportunity to help crack a global medical mystery that contributes to more than 60,000 maternal deaths worldwide each year.
Improving the lives of pregnant women and children is at the heart of Tilini Gunatillake’s passion for research.
So when she asked to help solve the mystery behind a potentially lethal pregnancy complication for her PhD at the age of 21, she jumped at the chance.
Researchers remain baffled about what causes pre-eclampsia.
Pre-eclampsia is the most serious medical disorder of human pregnancy, which affects five to ten per cent of pregnant women and contributes to over 60,000 maternal deaths worldwide each year. Currently, there is no effective treatment or prevention for this disorder which results in a continuous battle between survival of the fetus and the mother. It is usually a question of whether to deliver the baby prematurely to improve maternal health or to allow the fetus to reach its full growth potential and compromise the mother’s health
Ms Gunatillake joined a team, led by the head of Sunshine Hospital’s Maternal Fetal Medicine Unit A/Prof Joanne Said, in analysing a group of proteins that were decreased in the placenta among women with the condition.
She said her goals were to investigate the proteins’ function in the placenta, determine how reductions in the proteins could potentially lead to pregnancy disorders, and establish therapeutic interventions to reduce the likelihood of developing pre-eclampsia.
The study, which ran from 2011-2016, began at the Royal Women’s Hospital but later moved to Sunshine Hospital, with Ms Gunatillake promoted in the final year to postdoctoral research fellow.
The research has been published in five journals and although it was found that having less of the proteins in the placenta was not a precursor to developing pre-eclampsia, the study was able to demonstrate a novel insight into one of the current treatments used to treat and prevent the condition.
“We didn’t find any differences in cell function and still don’t know what causes it, however, the results from my study were able to help us better understand and redirect the current body of research into developing better targeted therapeutic interventions to prevent Pre-eclampsia” she said.
“It was such an interesting condition to study, especially as it is one of the most serious pregnancy complications.
“My interests have always been centred around women and children’s health so it felt like a natural progression that I would base my PhD on improving the lives of pregnant women complicated by pregnancy disorders such as pre-eclampsia.”
She said her interest in the field was piqued during lectures on maternal and fetal health at the University of Melbourne, where she completed a Bachelor of Science.
“It really fascinated me, how so much of our long-term health outcomes are influenced by what happens in-utero,” she said.
Her attraction to research has now sent her in a different direction – as an ethics and governance submission officer with Western Health – but one that she finds equally as satisfying.
“It’s very different but I wanted to be a well-rounded researcher,” she said.
“I want to get into more clinical research eventually, but this is a great experience.”
The Greatest Need Project is an online story-sharing website with two major goals – to help patients facing significant hardship and disadvantage, and to facilitate research, at Western Health.
As a staff member, Ms Gunatillake is sharing her story in bid to help those at Western Health who need it most.
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