Parasites cause some of the most deadly diseases to affect humans. Malaria is the most devastating of these, and is responsible for hundreds of millions of cases each year, with hundreds of thousands of deaths. In order to survive within our bodies, parasites must interact with the molecules of our cells. For example, the parasite that causes malaria must find its way inside our red blood cells to allow it reach an environment in which it can divide and replicate. However, the molecules which the parasite uses to bind their human targets are exposed to the human immune system and are therefore under attack as our bodies mount a defence.
The Higgins lab study how molecules from human-infective parasites stick to their human targets in processes such as red blood cell invasion in malaria and nutrient acquisition in sleeping sickness. We also analyse the antibodies that our bodies generate in response to infection, seeing how the most protective antibodies bind to parasite surface molecules. Finally, we use this information to design novel proteins which can be used as vaccines that guide our bodies to make the most protective immune responses. In all of this we work to understand how parasites interact with their human victims, and design therapeutics to stop them in their tracks.