Dr Julian C Rayner

Former Senior Group Leader at the Sanger Institute and former Director of Wellcome Connecting Science


This person is a member of Sanger Institute Alumni.

My research seeks to understand the interactions between Plasmodium parasites and human cells, in order to identify and prioritise new drug and vaccine targets. I focus on the stage of the parasite life cycle that infects human red blood cells, as it is this stage that causes all the symptoms and pathology of malaria.

After undergraduate education in New Zealand and a PhD studying with Dr Hugh Pelham at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, I began working on malaria parasites as a post-doctoral fellow in 1998 at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, USA. This is where I became fascinated with how Plasmodium parasites recognise and invade human red blood cells, work that I continued in my first faculty appointment at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA.

After moving to the Sanger Institute in 2008, my group adapted high-throughput genetic and biochemical approaches to studying erythrocyte invasion and other host-parasite interactions. During the time I was at Sanger we worked with Gavin Wright to identify a protein complex that is essential for erythrocyte invasion and is now entering vaccine trials in multiple labs around the world, with Oliver Billker to carry out the first genome-scale genetic screen of Plasmodium parasites, and with Prof. Beatrice Hahn at the University of Pennsylvania to study the origin of human Plasmodium parasites in African apes. I also developed collaborations with outstanding colleagues in many malaria-endemic countries.

I have always had a strong interest in learning and public engagement. I served as Director of Graduate Studies for the Sanger Institute between 2012 and 2014, and on the Committee of Graduate Studies for many more years. During my time at Sanger I helped develop web resources for malaria education, and have collaborated with artists and writers to engage a wide range of audiences in dialogue about science in general, and malaria in particular.

In 2014 I was appointed Director of the Sanger Institute’s learning, training, and engagement programme, Wellcome Connecting Science. Connecting Science has the mission to enable everyone to explore genomics and its impact on research, health and society. The programme inspires new thinking, sparks conversation and supports learning by drawing on the ground-breaking research taking place in the Institute and wider Wellcome Genome Campus.

In 2019 I became Director of the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research [cimr.cam.ac.uk] (CIMR) at the University of Cambridge and my malaria research team moved across from the Sanger Institute to CIMR in 2020. I was honoured to lead Wellcome Connecting Science for ten years, including for five years after my research team moved to CIMR. In early 2024 I stepped down to focus on my role at the University of Cambridge.

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