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Female Ochlerotatus notoscriptus feeding on a human arm - credit: JJ Harrison

Merton Fellows take their research to Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

June 2018

Three Merton Fellows are part of a team from Oxford's Department of Biochemistry and the Jenner Institute who will be bringing their ground-breaking research to the 2018 Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition next week.

The team, which includes Tutorial Fellow in Biochemistry Professor Matt Higgins, together with Supernumerary Fellows Professors Simon Draper and Sunetra Gupta, will be explaining the science behind their most recent breakthrough, one which could lead to the development of an urgently-needed vaccine to combat malaria, one of the deadliest of human diseases.

The malaria parasite is a shape-shifter, changing its surface coat to escape destruction by the human body, and this has made vaccine development extremely challenging. But the parasite must get inside human red blood cells in order to replicate and develop, and this depends upon a malaria protein - RH5 - binding to a human protein - basigin - on the surface of the cells. Unlike other variable malaria surface proteins, RH5 does not vary, making it easier to recognise and destroy. Simon's research team immunised human volunteers with RH5, then isolated antibodies from these volunteers. These antibodies prevented the parasite from invading red blood cells, allowing a team which includes members from the Higgins and Draper groups to use structural biology to reveal how these antibodies interact with RH5, and to design new molecules that could be used in the world’s first highly effective malaria vaccines.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to play a game to try to detect the unchanging elements in a shape-shifting parasite, use interactive maps to see the impact of vaccines on global health, and explore 3D models of RH5 binding to basigin and antibodies. The exhibition, which runs from Monday 2 to Sunday 8 July, takes place at the Royal Society in central London, and entry is free.

Matt and his team will also be taking over the Medical Sciences Division's Twitter account on Tuesday 3 July, sharing updates live from the exhibition.

Image: Female Ochlerotatus notoscriptus feeding on a human arm - © JJ Harrison [CC BY-SA 3.0]