Lankan-born professor receives OBE for outstanding research on cancer
by Sujeeva Nivunhella in London

 Sri Lankan born, Professor Saman Warnakulasuriya, who counts more than three decades in leading research programs on cancer detection, including several oral cancer population screening programs in high and low risk countries, was honoured by the Queen with an Order of the British Empire (OBE) title in Her Majesty’s New Year Honours List 2007.

Prof. Warnakulasuriya resides in Wallington, Surrey with his wife Ranjini and their daughter Roshini.

"My research on cancer now focuses on early detection, developing clinical tumour markers, laboratory molecular and genetic markers to assess risk and prognosis and risk modification", he said in an interview, shortly after receiving the good news of an OBE honour.

"I have played an active role in promoting the Mouth Cancer Awareness Week in the UK to improve public awareness of the early signs and symptoms and major risk factors", he noted.

The following are excerpts of his interview with our London Correspondent Sujeeva Nivunhella:

 Q: Where do you work now in the UK?

A: I am based at King's College, London as Professor and Head of Oral Medicine. King’s is one of the oldest and largest colleges of the University of London. I was earlier a senior research fellow at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. I served at the University of Peradeniya from 1976-1990 and later as Professor of Oral Medicine. 

 Q: Where were you born and have your early education?

I was born in Dodanduwa where I grew up until my parents moved to Galle. I had my primary and secondary education at Mahinda College, Galle. From Mahinda I entered the University of Ceylon in 1965 and qualified as a dental surgeon in 1969 with First Class Honours. I completed my postgraduate education in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

 I received my doctorate from the University of Glasgow in 1976 for developing techniques to measure replication human cells and observing differences in the growth of cancer cells.

 Q: Tell me about your services in Sri Lanka after you returned with your Fellowship in Dental Surgery from the Royal College of Surgeons and your Doctorate.

I lectured at the Dental School in Peradeniya for 15 years, where I contributed to the delivery and growth of dental education in Sri Lanka. My research was on the early detection of mouth cancer and on disorders of the mouth that later change to cancer.  I contributed to the world literature on the nomenclature, classification and identification of disorders, called precancerous conditions.  In collaboration with the World Health Organization, I conducted several innovative studies in Sri Lanka on screening and early detection of mouth (oral) cancer using the primary health care model.

 Q: Did you serve on any professional organizations in Sri Lanka?

I was the secretary of the Sri Lanka Cancer Society (Kandy Branch) for over 10 years and was the founder President of the Sri Lanka Dental Association (Kandy Branch).

Q: What other awards have you received?

In 1989, I received the National Award for Scientific Achievements from the Natural Resources, Energy & Science Authority of Sri Lanka. It was presented by the Prime Minister at Temple Tress. In 1990, I was the recipient of the Johnson and Johnson international prize for the best community oral health program awarded by the FDI World Dental Federation. The University of Peradeniya awarded me an honorary DSc (Honoris Causa) for my scientific achievements bringing distinction to my Alma Mater. My DSc was awarded  at the General Convocation of the University of Peradeniya in March 2007.

 Q: How would you describe your major contributions to research on cancer?

I have over 30 years experience in leading research programs on cancer detection, including several oral cancer population screening programs in high and low risk countries. I have acted as a visiting consultant to population studies in many countries including Japan, India, Taiwan, and Sudan. My cancer prevention activities have been to conduct demonstration programs on habit interventions, particularly on smoking cessation and health promotion on arecanut/betel quid chewing. I have published widely on these topics, over 130 research papers have been contributed. A full supplement edited by me on arecanut after a scientific conference in London provided a wealth of information on this popular masticatory substance and a habit of great antiquity.

My research on oral cancer in young people conducted in South east in England is the largest European study on risk habits in young people. Recently, I mapped out the trends in population incidence and mortality from oral cancer in the UK population from 1990-1999 and its regional variations in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Q: What’s your reaction to being honoured with an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire)?

I was delighted. This was in recognition for my contribution to healthcare services in Great Britain, for my national and international reputation in my specialized field, for a distinguished career in cancer research spanning over 35 years and for my leadership in international scientific programs enhancing UK’s reputation.


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