20,000 students form a bandwagon all over the country to engage in medical research, new innovations

A cross between Daedalus and Icarus, he has the Midas touch. He is the Founder of the youth led voluntary organization, ideanerd Sri Lanka (SL) and Co-Founder and Youth Convener of the voluntary organization and the United Youth Consortium (UNYCom).
He is 21-year-old Rakitha Malewana, a prodigy who has most recently been listed in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia in the healthcare and science sector for his work on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), is also a voice artist (does dubbing too) on television and radio networks since he was in Grade Three and a traditional face mask dancer since Grade Seven and according to him a ‘German ballet dancer’ and a thespian during his schooldays.

Malewana spoke to the Nation regarding his groundbreaking scientific researches and innovations, social and communal activism, his thoughts on the clash between Ayurveda medicine and Western medicine and the importance of comprehensive sex education and offending sacred cows.

Q: What have been the researches you have engaged in thus far and what have been the driving forces behind them?

I was interested in biological sciences and molecular biology in particular by the time I was 10 or 11 years old while I was in high school (Nalanda College, Colombo). I started out as a medical researcher when I was about 12 years or in Grade Nine, which was when I started reading medical journals (including electronic journals) and medical research and related sources (using every possible technological tool at his disposal). Reading is the core of being successful.

Nalanda principal, Ranjith Jayasundara encouraged new ideas, fostered a new culture of research in school and supported extra-curricular activities and not just syllabus based education. There were friends and teachers who helped. The major inspirational and motivational factor however was freedom. This is what I really value. I don’t like people saying do this or do that. Freedom is essential and vital. My family (parents are in the education sector and brother a science major) too never forced me to do this or that.
The first innovation and invention involved purifying water emissions from factories.
I was the first Sri Lankan high school student to be approved by the Ministry of Health to conduct medical research following scientific methodologies according to prescribed international standards.2

There is research to develop and design cancer therapeutics using environmental waste, especially waste water (purifying methods, subsequent transfers to nano particles and how specific chemical components are isolated are involved). Medical research and sustainability are hard to connect as they involve theoretical aspects and practical aspects to a certain degree.

My research on dengue and dengue fever concerned animal experimentation. I fused Western medicine and Ayurveda medicine (techniques such as Patha Ata Ekata Hindaweema) and vice versa (the maintenance of temperatures and different volumes until the final residues were obtained was done) to develop a novel chemical compound to increase the platelet count in the thrombocytopenia condition. My colleague in this was my classmate, Rananjaya Subash.

The next research involved the development of a novel nanotechnology based particle which could destroy leukemia cancer cells. This was done by isolating an active chemical compound found in Sri Lankan green tea, which was in turn developed through nanotechnology.

The subsequent research involved developing a nanotechnology based vaccine to stop the interaction between HIV and body cells. This medication has special effects. When comparing with normal fills which also attack healthy cells apart from the diseased cells, this nano-vaccine was developed with special receptors which means that there would be no harmful effects for healthy cells. This is in the initial and preliminary stage still. The next step involves animal experimentation using various mammals, following which the process has to move into the clinical trial phase. In 2019, I will be in the United States of America (USA) to continue this.

With technological advancements and mechanical developments, in five years the peak of the nanotechnology medium can be reached. These three researches were done in collaboration with the Medical Research Institute and the University of Colombo. With international exposure, I saw the difference between high school students in Sri Lanka and those in other countries such as the USA.

I wanted to expand my horizons and make a big impact. The aesthetic background helped in dealing with stress resulting from being a budding scientist who sometimes stays for nearly 24 to 30 hours at a stretch continuously in libraries.

Q: What is the scope for medical research in the country?

The situation in the country with regard to medical research in every field of medical research is extremely difficult. Lack of facilities such as laboratory facilities (in the case of HIV/AIDS related research one has to be careful as there are bioethical circumstances at play) is the main problem. There is also the lack of finances and government support. There is a huge knowledge gap. Responsible government authorities are reluctant to invest in innovation. Innovation and research are definitely needed to develop the country.

Q: What do you make of the controversies surrounding the various schools of thought on Ayurveda medicine and Western medicine?

Nowadays, people tend to be more inclined towards Western medicine. Specific techniques of Ayurveda can be used to improve the efficiency of Western medicine. Every chemical compound in Western medicine has its base in Ayurveda. Western medicine is a kind of expansion of Ayurveda. Western medicine targets specific aspects, focusing on each and every factor, which is a lengthy procedure while Ayurveda is more holistic. Every medicine has some kind of side effect. There can be collaboration or separation. Ayurveda medicine can be used to develop Western medicine and vice versa. One can combine traditional techniques into Western medicine. A combination can be used.
Q: How did you come to work on HIV/AIDS?

After the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level exam, I engaged in HIV/AIDS awareness programmes, working with marginalized HIV positive persons for hours and hours, discussing their life stories, conducting counseling and providing them with a scientific background which they lacked and as a result didn’t follow the exact method with regard to medication. They had no proper guidance. I made them understand the brutal reality of the disease and that if the available meds were taken correctly that they could have life expectancy.

Apart from HIV/AIDS, we deal with mental health issues and work in collaboration with others with autistic children at centres in Angoda, Mulleriyawa and Kandy to enhance their day to day activities.

Q: What are the challenges youth face with regard to sexual and reproductive health related matters?

Traditional socio-cultural and religious barriers and restrictions prevent discussions about sexual and reproductive health related issues by making them taboo subjects. This is the biggest problem. In schools, teachers skip the lessons pertaining to such topics. Most students however are curious about these which are included in the school curricula from Grade Eight to 11. They are inserted into textbooks. Youth are transforming to adulthood at this age. The inner feelings of the students and the young crowd are caged. They have no opportunity to ask their parents about such issues they face. There is a huge knowledge gap with regard to sexual and reproductive health among school children in the country. We are not providing comprehensive sex education.

These are necessary topics. Last year’s incident involving a child in Kuliyapitiya who was alleged to have been HIV positive being denied education and the education level shown by a high ranker on the political stage is proof of this. If what this particular individual said about the disease proves that politicians possess no proper knowledge about social issues, what can one expect from the general population including youth? This is an area where people are stigmatized and discriminated against. Society has sympathetic feelings towards cancer patients, yet HIV patients are excluded. This is wrong behaviour and a bad, negative attitude. There are a lot of kids living with HIV. Sex is not the only way one can get infected with HIV. We have to talk about sexual behaviours. At the extreme end of the taboo spectrum is the topic of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. These being taboo is one of the reasons for the increase in sexually transmitted diseases. These are practiced secretively. We want to raise awareness regarding it and openly discuss these topics.

UNYCom was established in 2015 with the help of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS Sri Lanka. We have expanded towards achieving 17 sustainable development goals and addressing every possible topic that matters to youth. The 15 to 30 years age group is our target group. We want to improve the quality of youth.

Q: What was the idea behind ideanerd SL?

In 2012, I founded ideanerd SL. Many students, due to the traditional education system are reluctant to focus on extra-curricular activities. The education system promotes a rat race among children. They are not motivated to do research whereas what the youth in other countries do at a young age is mind blowing in terms of how international students working in various fields achieve targets. They develop their intellectual curious nature. In Sri Lanka, there is no proper helping hand. This is why ideanerd SL seeks to popularize science, research and innovations among students. Through workshops via which we impart technical skills and techniques pertaining to it (and providing research persons), we have empowered 20,000 students all over the country to engage in medical research and create new innovations.