The £2M Wellcome Collaborative Award will fund a 5-year project to explore how the malaria parasite can deceive the human immune system.
Malaria is a serious disease caused by a parasite which is spread to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. The tiny parasites that cause malaria hide within human red blood cells where they replicate and mature. However, the human immune system mounts a defence and responds by activating its immune cells to seek out and destroy infected red blood cells before the parasite matures, leading to parasite death, while sparing uninfected cells. To allow them to do this, our cells present molecules, such as major histocompatibility complex (MHC) on their surfaces, signalling to our immune cells that they are part of our bodies.
The malaria parasite has evolved a large family of proteins, called RIFINs and STEVORs, that are presented on infected blood cell surfaces. Previous work from partners in Osaka recently found that some of the RIFINs shield the infected red blood cells by shutting down signals in the immune cells, thereby protecting the parasite from detection.
The Oxford and Osaka teams published in 2020 in Nature that this RIFIN can mimic human molecules, such as MHC, that protect healthy cells from immune attack. The aim of the new research is to discover if other RIFINs do the same to better understand if this discovery may be harnessed to better treat malaria.