Parasitism is a dominant mode of life on the planet, and parasitic metazoan and protozoan eukaryotes cause some of the most damaging and intractable diseases of both man and his domestic animals. Malaria is a leading cause of mortality, killing a million children each year in sub-Saharan Africa alone, while other protozoan infections, and the parasitic worms that chronically infect a third of the world population, are important and widespread ‘neglected diseases’.
Parasites have diverse modes of transmission in disease endemic areas, many involving complex interactions between host, vector, parasite and environmental factors. As a result, the study of parasitic diseases is, historically, a multi-disciplinary scientific undertaking uniquely orientated towards poverty-associated infectious diseases of the developing world. This is reflected in the multi-faceted nature of parasite and parasitic disease research in many Cambridge academic departments and research institutes.
Studies on malaria range from structural and biochemical analysis of parasite cell binding proteins (Dept Biochemistry) to the pathophysiology of malaria-infected human red blood cells (Dept Physiology, Development & Neuroscience). Antigenic cartography methods used to predict viral antigenic evolution (Dept Zoology), and the effects of genetic polymorphisms that affect the function of down-regulatory Ig-receptors (Dept Medicine and CIMR), are both being tested on malaria in disease endemic areas of Kenya.
Major programmes on Trypanosomes (African sleeping sickness) focus on the parasite's cell surface architecture and post-translational gene expression regulation (Dept Biochemistry), and its molecular cell biology (Dept Pathology); while collaborative studies (Sanger Centre and Dept Pathology) are developing methods to integrate Toxoplasma gondii transcriptomic and metabolomic data to investigate basic host-parasite interactions. Phylogenetic molecular biology and genomic studies, involving the sexually transmitted protozoan Trichomonas vaginalis, are focused on such fundamental questions as how eukaryotic cells evolved from prokaryotic ancestors (Dept Pathology).
Human parasitic worm research includes:
- long-term immuno-epidemiology studies of schistosomiasis in Kenya, Uganda and Mali
- multi-disciplinary studies of the impact of malaria, schistosomiasis and hookworm co-infections on the health of African schoolchildren (Dept Pathology)
- the impact of intestinal worms in rural Bangladesh and Papua New Guinea (Dept Biological Anthropology).
- the remarkable potential of parasitic worms to protect against allergic and autoimmune diseases (Dept Pathology).
Parasite research in Cambridge benefits greatly from the Sanger Centre Eukaryote Pathogen Sequencing Unit's major protozoan parasite genome sequencing programme that includes Plasmodium, Babesia, Eimeria, Theileria, Toxoplasma, Entamoeba, Leishmania, and Trypanosoma. Its recently expanded parasitic worm programme has also produced high coverage reference genomes of Schistosoma, Echinococcus, Ascaris, Haemonchus, Nippostrongylus, Onchocerca, Strongyloides, Trichuris and Necator.
People specializing in this area
Collaborating with Dr Teresa Tiffert and Dr Virgilio Lew in PDN, on mechanisms of merozoite egress and invasion.
Parasite infestation of humans throughout our evolution