Division of Tropical Health and Medicine

Publish Date

23 January 2019

Malaria – a parasite that constantly changes

An Australian researcher is taking a new approach to understanding how the malaria parasite messes with the human immune system. The ultimate goal? A revolutionary vaccine.

“Overall, about half the world’s population is at risk from malaria,” says Professor Denise Doolan of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University (JCU). “There are more than 200 million clinical cases of the disease each year, and about half a million deaths, so it’s quite a big public health burden.”

Unlike many infectious diseases that are eliminated by our immune system, malaria parasites cause acute illness. Malaria parasites can hide in our blood cells and tissues, making them very hard to get rid of. This contributes to the perpetual spread of the disease.

In addition, says Professor Doolan, “the parasite keeps changing in order to avoid the host immune response, and the human host keeps changing in response to the parasite.” This is why the development of effective vaccines and treatments is difficult, and not as easy to eradicate such as smallpox or polio.

Boy recieves vaccine.
Mosquito on human skin

A different approach to fighting malaria

“What that really means, in my opinion, is that we need to take a different approach,” says Professor Doolan.

She and her team at JCU are trying to gain a better understanding of the host-parasite interaction by creating detailed genetic profiles of both the parasite and the human immune response. They then use that information to develop new strategies to combat the parasite and eradicate the disease.

For example, the malaria parasite makes more than 5,500 proteins. Just picking one or two of these to make a vaccine leaves a lot of scope for the parasite to get around it. So instead, Professor Doolan says, “We’re trying to design a genome-based vaccine.”

Analysing the genetic blueprint of malaria

A full analysis of the parasite’s complete genetic blueprint – or genome – will provide a much better understanding of how those proteins function.

This knowledge can then guide the design of vaccines that incorporate multiple important proteins, and thus generate a strong and sustained immune response that the parasite cannot evade.

Researchers are also examining the human immune response to malaria, particularly during the ‘liver stage’, which takes place after the initial infection, but before symptoms develop. Evidence suggests that immune T-cells play an important role in determining whether or not a person gets ill.

Dead mosquitos in a lab
Researchers in protective gear

How some people gain immunity to malaria

Professor Doolan wants to figure out why and how this information can be used to design an effective treatment.

She’s also intrigued by people who have become immune to the illness after a lifetime of exposure. “They won’t get sick, but they still have parasites circulating in their bloodstream,” she says.

By building a comprehensive genetic picture of the immune response during the liver stage of the infection, or in people who have some level of immunity to the disease, Professor Doolan hopes to identify which immune molecules and functions are important, and then therapeutically target these to protect people against malaria.

A related aspect of this work could also identify people who are particularly susceptible to infection and disease, as well as those who will respond well to vaccination or treatment.

Improving the health of millions

Professor Doolan’s approach to tackling malaria, including the platforms and technologies she’s developed along the way, could also be applied to other diseases, she says. “The core of my research is to try and improve the health of millions of people worldwide who are affected by either an infectious or chronic disease.”

Discover more about how Professor Doolan and the Centre for Molecular Therapeutics are developing innovative solutions to global public health problems.

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Professor Denise Doolan

Professorial Research Fellow – Deputy Director, AITHM

Denise Doolan is a Professorial Research Fellow and NHMRC Principal Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM), JCU. Denise is a molecular immunologist and her research focuses on developing novel immunotherapeutics and diagnostics for infectious and chronic diseases that impact global public health, with a particular focus on malaria.

Her research program spans host-pathogen immunity, antigen discovery, vaccine engineering, and biomarker discovery. She has a specific interest in T cell-mediated immunity to disease, and the application of systems immunology which integrates immunology with cutting-edge omics-based technologies and computational sciences to identify antigens, molecules and immune mechanisms that can be targeted for host-directed therapeutics.