Brighter together: ‘Tag team’ combining global and local expertise to tackle malaria

This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Autumn ‘23
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Professor Ivo Mueller and Dr Rhea Longley

Professor Ivo Mueller, a world expert in the epidemiology and control of malaria, and Dr Rhea Longley, a leading researcher on malaria vaccines and immunology, collaborate and innovate to fight the deadly disease.


I first came to Australia from Switzerland to do postdoctoral work at the University of Queensland, then spent 10 years at the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research before joining WEHI in 2011.

Infection by the Plasmodium vivax parasite is the more common form of malaria we see in most parts of southeast Asia and the Pacific, but P. vivax has different biology from other Plasmodium parasites. After a person is initially infected, a form of the P. vivax parasite can lie dormant in their liver cells for months or years before re-entering the bloodstream, causing a relapse of symptoms and contributing to the spread of the disease.

Rhea and I have been collaborating on P. vivax research since she joined my lab about eight years ago. I remember when I first got Rhea’s CV, I contacted her former supervisor and he told me: “You’d be an absolute fool if you didn’t hire her!”

“Controlling and ultimately eliminating P. vivax malaria means tackling the hidden reservoir of parasites in the livers of people with no symptoms.”

That’s where Rhea’s research comes in: based on what she’s discovered about the immune response to P. vivax, we can now use a blood test – serology – to look for the tell-tale ‘tags’ of recent infection.

If we can identify who is likely to be carrying dormant parasites in their livers, we can focus on those individuals rather than trying to treat the whole population with potentially toxic anti-malarial drugs. We call this strategy P. vivax serological-testingand-treatment (PvSeroTAT).

Our collaboration keeps evolving: Rhea is taking more ownership of the lab, and that’s how it should be. One of the great things about being a mentor is that you can hand something over and watch it grow; that’s much more fun than doing it all yourself.

We have very different skill sets, so meeting in the middle is easy. Rhea is an immunologist and vaccinologist whereas I’m fundamentally an epidemiologist and statistician. Much of my job now is finding the funding support for our research; Rhea is the brains behind the lab operation!

But what we do at WEHI is just the tip of the iceberg: although we might develop technologies and approaches, most of the work happens in the field. That’s how you do global health research – building local capacity and confidence is the key.


I’ve worked on malaria since my Honours project at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Hobart, Tasmania. After that, I went to the UK to do a PhD on malaria vaccines at the Jenner Institute in Oxford.

I really loved the experience and all the work I did at Oxford, but it felt slightly odd that I was working on malaria without having ever worked in a malaria-endemic country. I was also keen to work on P. vivax, given its importance in our region, and wanted to come back to Australia eventually.

WEHI was naturally one of the places I looked to, given its reputation in malaria research. Luckily for me, Ivo saw the value in having a researcher on the ground in a collaborating lab and he facilitated an introduction to his colleagues in Thailand.

That led to a joint postdoctoral appointment between WEHI and Mahidol University in Bangkok, where I started my research tracking people who had contracted P. vivax malaria, to look at how their antibody signatures change over time after they’re first infected. I came to Melbourne after two years in Bangkok.

“It was important to have spent that extended time in Thailand and become part of the lab family.”

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, I had also been returning to Bangkok for five or six weeks each year, and that continued close collaboration has been fruitful for both research groups.

Ivo and I work really well together. I have lots of independence but also the support I’ve needed to mature as a scientist. We both felt the time was right for me to be lead investigator and we were successful in applying for funding for a new collaborative project in the Philippines under the e-ASIA 2022 Joint Research Program.

Thanks to samples from studies in places around the world where P. vivax is endemic, we’ve been able to develop and validate a diagnostic test that indicates recent exposure, and that’s what we’ll be deploying in the Philippines.

Malaria has been almost eliminated across much of the Philippines, but there are sporadic outbreaks of P. vivax infection in areas like the Sultan Kudarat province, where our study is focused. Our colleagues at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in Manila haven’t done much work there so everyone is excited to get the project started, and we’re hoping our serology can shed light on what’s going on.

We’ll also recruit a PhD student – ideally from the Philippines or elsewhere in southeast Asia – who can work between Australia and the Philippines, and I think that will really help cement this new collaboration.

First published on 27 March 2023
This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Autumn ‘23
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Senior Research Scientist (Laboratory)
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