Infectious Diseases and the Immune System

Tiny green HIV viruses surround a pink blood cell.

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 (in green) budding from cultured lymphocyte.


CDC Public Health Image Library


From coronavirus and Ebola to Lyme and toxoplasmosis, infectious disease causes illness and economic setbacks around the globe. The disease-causing microbes and viruses can be easily spread; and no effective treatments exist for many of these diseases. Our researchers are developing a deeper understanding of how these microorganisms function, laying the groundwork for new strategies for preventing, diagnosing, and treating the diseases they cause. 

For example, Sebastian Lourido studies and manipulates the genetics and molecular functions of disease causing parasites such as Toxoplasma gondii, which sickens pregnant women, infants, and immunocompromised patients around the world. His goal: exposing treatable vulnerabilities in parasites that, collectively, cause millions of deaths each year. Silvi Rouskin is investigating whether and how organisms like HIV and coronavirus alter their RNA’s three-dimensional shape, which could be key to their ability to infect cells; understanding RNA shape could lead to the development of small molecule drugs that inhibit the infection process. Similarly, Gerald Fink demonstrated how pathogenic fungi can switch from benign to infectious form and invade human tissues—providing a scientific basis for development of new antibiotics. Rudolf Jaenisch is using stem cells and lab-grown organoids to more accurately reflect what happens in the human body experiencing infectious disease; his stem cell-derived Zika model, for example, suggests specifically how the virus causes microcephaly in babies. 

David Page is doing trailblazing work in the field of sex-based differences in biology, seeking to understand, for example, why the autoimmune disease lupus affects far more women than men. Olivia Corradin is providing new insights into the genetic risk factors and disease pathways that contribute to multiple sclerosis; she has found, for example, that variants in the brain cells that produce myelin appear to contribute to the disease—which was previously unknown. And Kipp Weiskopf is investigating how cancer cells prevent a body’s own immune system from seeing them as threats and destroying them; and he is developing new ways of prompting immune cells to attack malignant cells. 

Learn more about our work on Infectious Disease—well as related research in the realms of Cancer, Genetics & Genomics, Neurological Disorders & Disease, and Protein Form & Function.