Mosquito infected with malaria
Infections from viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites are significant causes of worldwide illness and death.
Our researchers investigate many significant infectious agents with the goal of reducing the global burden of infectious disease.

Our infectious disease research

Our researchers are working to develop better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious diseases. Infections we study include: 

Our research into particular infectious diseases is closely integrated with investigations into how our immune system responds to that disease. This is contributing to:

  • Advancing vaccine development to generate immune responses that prevent infections.
  • New strategies to treat infections through manipulating our immune response.

What are infections?

We are constantly exposed to many different types of living organisms in our environment. A small proportion of these are able to invade our body and live within us. When an invading organism makes us sick, this is termed an infection.

In some cases, organisms living within us are beneficial to our health. For example, many bacteria living in our bowel are important for digestion and are a source of certain vitamins. These ‘friendly’ organisms can also impede the entry of disease-causing infectious organisms.

Types of infectious organisms

A diversity of living organisms has developed the ability to live within our bodies. The broad classes of these include:

  • Viruses, small particles that enclose a viral genome that must reproduce within cells.
  • Bacteria, simple cells that can often divide rapidly.
  • Fungi, more complex cells or branching strands of cells.
  • Parasites, a broad term for organisms that invade our body that are not any of the above classes. They can include single-cell ‘protists’, and parasitic animals such as parasitic worms, and parasitic mites.

Organisms that are only visible using a microscope, such as viruses, bacteria and many fungi and single cell parasites, are often called ‘microbes’.

Infections can occur in many different parts of our body. Some organisms, such as the scabies mite, invade only a few millimetres into the outer layers of our skin. Viruses can only grow and reproduce within cells.

Some bacteria, fungi and parasites also grow within cells. Others can live within certain tissues in our body, or in cavities such as our lungs or mouth. Some diseases can occur without direct contact with the microbe, such as illness caused by toxins released by bacteria into foods.

How do infections make us sick?

There are many different ways that infectious agents make us sick. These include:

  • Damaging cells or tissues within our body directly, such as a virus killing its host cell.
  • Secreting toxins that damage cells.
  • Forcing cells to behave abnormally, such as dividing uncontrollably.
  • Competing for nutrients or other resources with our own cells.
  • Physically obstructing the normal function of an organ.
  • Triggering harmful immune responses or inflammation.

The immune response is critical to prevent infections spreading. People with immunodeficiencies may not mount an appropriate immune response and can suffer overwhelming illness from microbes that normally cause mild or no infection.

The symptoms of an infection can be caused by:

  • The infectious agent itself, or toxins it releases.
  • The immune response to that infection, especially inflammatory responses

The duration of an infection can vary. An infection can be:

  • Acute, meaning the infectious agent is soon removed, although the damage it causes may take longer to resolve.
  • Chronic, meaning the infectious organism persists within our body long-term, avoiding immune clearance.

Some infections are chronic, but periodically reappear in an acute form.

Evading the immune system

Our immune system protects us from many infections. However, some infectious organisms have developed strategies to evade our immune defenses. These can include:

  • Changing proteins on their surface (or the surface of an infected cell) to evade specific immune responses.
  • Hiding within cells.
  • Producing a dormant form that can re-awaken when host immunity is weakened.
  • Residing in parts of the body that are poorly accessed by the immune system, such as the skin surface or brain.

Our researchers are discovering how particular infectious organisms evade immune detection. This is revealing new strategies for enhancing the immune response to clear the infection, and also new approaches to designing vaccines to prevent infection.

How are infections prevented?

Two important ways to prevent contacting an infectious disease are:

  • Avoiding exposure to the infectious agent, such as avoiding mosquito bites to prevent malaria, and washing hands to reduce the spread of influenza.
  • Inducing a protective immune response, such as through vaccination, that prevents the infection establishing.

The smallpox virus was the first infection to be completely eliminated from humans worldwide, aided by a global vaccination program. Our researchers aspire to contribute to the elimination of other infections, particularly malaria.

How are infections treated?

The ideal treatments for infections kill the infectious agent without harming the body’s own cells. Many treatments target molecular differences between microbes and humans.

The broad classes of medicines used to treat infections are:

  • Antivirals
  • Antibiotics, to treat bacterial infections
  • Antifungals
  • Antiparasitics

Our researchers are investigating many new approaches to treating disease. An important focus is to identify molecules unique to an infectious agent that can be targeted by new medicines developed using medicinal chemistry.

Our researchers are also developing new approaches to treating infections, particularly chronic infections, by boosting the immune response to the infectious agent.

For some infectious diseases, treatments also involve reversing or resolving the damage caused by the infection. For example, people with gastrointestinal infections who are dehydrated are given additional fluids.

Drug resistance

As infectious organisms proliferate, some acquire genetic changes. Occasionally these allow an organism to become resistant to a particular treatment. When that treatment is given, the resistant microbes can continue to grow in our bodies, replacing the treatment-sensitive organisms. Resistance is more likely to develop when people do not take a full course of treatment, such as an antibiotic course.

Over time a drug-resistant strain of a disease can become the predominant strain in the community. When more than one type of treatment for an infection is available, a strain of microbes resistant to one treatment may be sensitive to another.

Over time, multi-drug resistance can develop, rendering many treatments ineffective. Increasing rates of multi-drug resistance are limiting the options for treating many types of infection, including malaria and tuberculosis.

Our researchers aim to develop new treatments for infections using approaches that minimise the likelihood of resistance developing. By investigating the basic biology of infections, they are revealing how drug resistance occurs, and designing treatment strategies that are more difficult to evade.

Treatments that boost the immune system’s clearance of infections are another approach that may overcome problems posed by multidrug resistant infections.


Dr Rory Bowden

Dr Rory Bowden photographed smiling at the camera
Genomics Laboratory Head and Centre Manager, WEHI Advanced Genomics Facility

Dr Anna Coussens

Dr Anna Coussens in a laboratory
Laboratory Head

Professor Alan Cowman

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

Professor Ivo Mueller

Professor Ivo Mueller
Joint Division Head

Dr Shabih Shakeel

Dr Shabih Shakeel photographed at WEHI
Laboratory Head

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
Dr Leanne Robinson in Papua New Guinea

See inside our malaria research program in Madang, Papua New Guinea.

Interview with Justin Boddey

The institute's malaria research team is homing in on a new target for malaria treatment

Malaria parasite in the bloodstream

Visualisation of the parasite infection inside a pregnant female mosquito.

Hands holding a laboratory dish

Professor Marc Pellegrini discusses the threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Gloved hands pipetting in hood

International health officials recently warned of a “catastrophic threat” to human health, given one of the last remaining antibiotics capable of defeating superbugs – carbapenem antibiotics – is succumbing to the deadly bacteria.

Q&A session at World Malaria Day 2014 public lecture

An overview of malaria research and progress to date, including vaccine and drug development, and our research in malaria-endemic countries.

Microscopy image of dendritic cells in the skin

Our research has revealed an unanticipated secret about the cells that form the first line of defence in the body’s fight against infection