A malaria infected red blood cell anchors itself to a blood vessel wall.
Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease caused by a parasite. It affects several hundred million people annually. Our malaria researchers are improving how malaria can be diagnosed, treated and prevented. Their goal is to advance the elimination of malaria.

Our malaria research

Our multidisciplinary malaria research team aims to:

  • Understand the biology of the malaria parasite at all its life stages, to identify molecular targets for potential new treatments.
  • Discover new antimalarial treatments.
  • Define the interaction between the malaria parasite and our immune system.
  • Develop and advance trials of new candidate vaccines to prevent malaria.
  • Develop a diagnostic test to identify people that carry dormant P. vivax liverstage infections.
  • Reveal how malaria spreads in the Asia-Pacific, to assist in elimination programs.

WEHI’s insectary, opened in 2013, allows studies of the full malaria lifecycle in mosquitoes and during transmission to humans.

Our scientists collaborate with researchers in many malaria-endemic countries including:

  • Papua New Guinea
  • the Solomon Islands
  • Thailand
  • Cambodia
  • Indonesia
  • Peru
  • Equador
  • Brazil

To translate our research more rapidly into improved health outcomes, we are a member of the Asia Pacific Malaria Elimination Network.

What is malaria?

The parasite Plasmodium causes malaria. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected Anopheles mosquito. This occurs in tropical and subtropical regions.

The malaria parasite has a complex lifecycle with stages in the mosquito and humans (or other mammals).

When a malaria parasite enters the blood, via mosquito saliva, it migrates to the liver. Here it undergoes a ‘silent’ development stage, multiplying in liver cells but not causing illness.

Parasites then migrate into the blood, where they infect red blood cells. It is the infection and reproduction of Plasmodium in red blood cells that causes symptoms of malaria. These include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Lethargy

The blood stage of malaria can also cause serious complications, including:

  • Blockage of blood vessels in critical organs such as the brain
  • Organ failure
  • Anaemia (too few red blood cells)
  • Coma

Malaria is a major cause of death and loss of productivity in many countries in South-East Asia and the Pacific, as well as many other developing countries worldwide. Young children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to severe malaria illness.

Each year there are more than 600,000 deaths from malaria worldwide.

Types of malaria

There are six species of malaria parasite that infect humans. Our research is focused on two species that have significant impact on global health:

  • Plasmodium falciparum, which causes rapid and severe illness
  • Plasmodium vivax, a significant cause of illness in the Asia-Pacific region. Its ability to lie dormant for months in humans makes elimination difficult.

How is malaria prevented and treated?

Current strategies to prevent malaria rely on

  • Avoiding mosquito bites, such as through bed netting.
  • Prophylactic use of antimalarial medications.

Malaria elimination would be greatly enhanced by a malaria vaccine. Two candidate malaria vaccines developed by our researchers are now in clinical trials.

Many antimalarial drugs have been developed that can be used to treat people with malaria. Their effectiveness is limited by the emergence of drug-resistant Plasmodium variants in many parts of the world. New antimalarial drugs are urgently needed to reduce the burden of malaria.



Professor Alan Cowman

Alan Cowman standing in a laboratory
Laboratory Head; Deputy Director, Science Strategy

Professor Ivo Mueller

Professor Ivo Mueller
Joint Division Head

Associate Professor Kelly Rogers

Associate Professor Kelly Rogers at a microscope
Associate Professor
Division Head; Head, Centre for Dynamic Imaging

Dr Brad Sleebs

Dr Brad Sleebs
Laboratory Head

Associate Professor Chris Tonkin

Associate Professor Chris Tonkin in his office
Associate Professor
Acting Division Head, Laboratory Head
Super Content: 
Microscopy image of malaria parasites in blood cell

Light microscopy at the Institute's Centre for Dynamic Imaging is giving researchers new insights into the behaviour of a deadly malaria-causing parasite.

Bacteria growing in petri dishes

Our malaria research program and why research the disease.

Malaria parasite in the bloodstream

Visualisation of the parasite infection inside a pregnant female mosquito.

Female scientist with research mosquitoes

Researchers have developed a novel class of antimalarial compounds that can effectively kill malaria parasites.

Photo of a mother holding a baby

The WEHI Centre for Global Disease and Health discovers and develops innovative solutions to some of the biggest health challenges affecting the world’s poorest populations.