Digging deeper


By Jesica Hurst, BA'14

While completing an honours specialization in pathology as a BMSc student at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Tharsan Kanagalingam was able to get a taste of what working in a lab environment was really like.

He was supervised by Lisa Cameron, PhD, and worked on research related to severe asthmatic patients — something he grew very passionate about.

“Once I started digging deeper into that one specific topic, it was really difficult to come to terms with letting go of the progress I had made,” Kanagalingam said. “That feeling, paired with the incredible mentorship I received, is what pushed me to pursue a master’s degree and continue working on the same research topic.”

Kanagalingam is interested in understanding why severe asthmatic patients exhibit steroid resistance. He is trying to understand how a certain level of steroids may actually enhance its own resistance — a topic that has never been explored before.

“I’m looking at the steroid response in TH2 cells, which are the cell types prominently found in allergic asthma — the most common type of asthma that is caused by an allergen,” he explained. “We’re trying to uncover whether treating asthma with a low level of steroids, which is not strong enough to kill the cells or be anti-inflammatory, may actually be making asthma symptoms worse in certain patients.”

Since the early 1960s, asthma patients have been treated with steroids. While it is the most effective treatment, Kanagalingam believes it is naïve to think all patients will react the same way. He is excited about the possibility of uncovering novel results that could have a direct impact on patients’ lives.

“Once I started digging deeper into that one specific topic, it was really difficult to come to terms with letting go of the progress I had made.” — Tharsan Kanagalingam

“What really intrigued me about this research project is the idea that it is going against the grain and has the potential to actually make an impact on patients living with the asthma,” he said. “As a researcher, my goal is to not only enhance the knowledge of certain diseases and processes, but to also be able to implement my findings in a way that helps out clinically.”

When the young researcher was looking for the next step after completing his undergraduate training, he wanted to stay within the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry because of the supportive community and access to state-of-the-art equipment and training.

He also has the ability to use equipment and facilities like the London Regional Flow Cytometry Facility at Robarts Research Institute outside of the Department to enhance his research and develop his skills.

“Coming into my master’s degree with only a year of lab experience, I didn’t have too many techniques under my belt,” he said. “In a short amount of time, I’ve learned how to do everything from cell culturing to flow cytometry. It’s great to get those hands-on skills you need to become a successful researcher.”

While some may shy away from the challenges that come with being a researcher, Kanagalingam uses them to feed his drive. It is what pushed him into pursuing this as a career, and what continues to keep him fulfilled on a day-to-day basis.

“It can be frustrating when something doesn’t work, but I like the challenge of having to figure out how to approach it differently,” he said. “With any topic, there is always more you can learn, and different avenues you can take to figure out the answer — the only limit is time.”

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