Alyssa Barry

Professor Alyssa Barry was awarded the veski innovation fellowship for one year, to support her return to the Australian medical research community. She took up her position in September 2006.

Professor Barry returned from postdoctoral training at the University of Oxford, UK and New York University School of Medicine, USA to build a team within the International Health Research Group at the MacFarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health.

Research project: Population genomics of major surface antigen genes of the malaria parasite

Every thirty seconds a child dies from malaria in the developing world. The disease is curable by drug treatment but access to affordable healthcare and widespread drug resistance is a problem for the majority of people at risk of infection. An effective malaria vaccine would be a sustainable approach to controlling malaria in these settings.

Malaria is caused by a tiny parasite transmitted from person to person by the female anopheline mosquito. Following a short period of time in the liver, it is released into the bloodstream where it hides and multiplies inside red blood cells. To communicate with the outside world, the parasite coats the red blood cell with a protein known as PfEMP1. This makes it a target for developing antibodies, so the parasite regularly switches to a new coat. The parasite has an arsenal of up to 60 var genes that encode different PfEMP1 – so effectively 60 different coats. Each malaria parasite has a unique set of var genes. In the context of a malaria endemic area such as a village in Africa or Papua New Guinea, this results in an enormous potential for people to be infected repeatedly and for long periods of time and more than once. But, after many infections people develop immunity to the disease. This is thought to be associated with the acquisition of antibodies to all of the var genes in a population. If a child makes it to the age of five or so, they will likely be protected. Development of a vaccine that replicates this immunity is a high priority.

Alyssa’s research aims to understand var gene diversity; how var genes evolve; and the development of immunity to the multitude of var genes within populations. She will develop genomic tools for the surveillance of malaria parasite genomes and host immune responses. The ultimate goal of this research is a blueprint for a malaria vaccine that mimics the natural exposure to the malaria parasite in endemic areas.

Malaria parasites live in the red blood cells of a human host for part of the life cycle. During this time, molecules that stimulate an immune response are placed on the surface of the cell. These molecules can switch by changing the var gene that is expressed, which allows the parasites to hide and improve their chance to be transmitted to another mosquito carrier.

Professor Alyssa Barry