Infection and Immunity

Infection and Immunity

Mosquito midgut 24hrs after a blood meal infected with malaria
Malaria, tuberculosis and HIV are three of the major global infectious diseases causing significant death and disease, particularly in resource-poor countries.
The Infection and Immunity division aims to understand how infectious agents cause human disease and use this knowledge to develop new treatments.

‘Hijacking’ parasite

Associate Professor Chris Tonkin, Dr Justin Boddey and colleagues discovered how a common parasite called Toxoplasma hijacks host cells to enable its own growth and survival, hibernating for decades by creating its own food reserve.

Some of these proteins may even change the host’s behaviour or personality, potentially explaining a fascinating association between Toxoplasma infection and psychiatric diseases including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The findings could lead to a vaccine to protect pregnant women from Toxoplasma infection, which carries a serious risk of miscarriage or birth defects, as well as drugs to clear chronic infections in people with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients.

New map of key malaria protein

The Plasmodium vivax parasite is the predominant cause of malaria in countries outside Africa, and is the biggest cause of relapsing malaria infections that complicate malaria elimination efforts.

Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham, Dr Jakub Gruszczyk and colleagues have created the fi rst atomic-resolution structure of the protein PvRBP that is used by P. vivax parasites to infect human red blood cells. The research could allow scientists to generate new tools that block P. vivax infection, and could potentially lead to a vaccine preventing this form of malaria. 

Awards for hepatitis B research

Professor Marc Pellegrini, Dr Greg Ebert and colleagues identified a potential cure for hepatitis B virus (HBV), with a promising new drug, birinapant, proving 100 per cent successful in eliminating HBV in preclinical models. US biotech company TetraLogic Pharmaceuticals hopes to begin clinical trials of birinapant for treating hepatitis B in Asia in 2016.

The team received the 2015 Australian Museum Eureka Prize in Infectious Disease for the research, and Dr Ebert was awarded the Centenary Institute’s Lawrence Creative Prize 2015. The team is now looking at whether birinapant could be used to treat other chronic infections. 

Health impact

Immune disorders: sepsis

Infectious disease: chronic infections, hepatitis b, HIV, malaria, toxoplasmosis, tuberculosis, vaccines

Division heads

Professor Alan Cowman

Professor Marc Pellegrini

Lab heads

Dr Justin Boddey

Dr Diana Hansen

Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham

Associate Professor Chris Tonkin

Division coordinator

Stella Kyvetos