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A novel biosensor for multiple autoantibody detection in the management of autoimmune disease

   Department of Life Sciences

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  Dr Stefan Bagby  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

The University of Bath is inviting applications for the following funded PhD project commencing in October 2022.

Intended Supervisory Team:

Lead Supervisor:

Dr Stefan Bagby, Department of Biology & Biochemistry, Centre for Biosensors, Bioelectronics and Biodevices (C3Bio)


Dr Sarah Tansley, Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology, Royal United Hospital, National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases

Dr Pedro Estrela, Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, C3Bio

Prof Neil McHugh, Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology, National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases

Overview of the Research:

Our aim is to improve autoantibody detection, leading to better understanding and to precise, personalised treatment of autoimmune diseases. This will be achieved by further developing a novel biosensor, created by the project team, into a multiplexed device that screens simultaneously for multiple autoantibodies in a patient sample.

Antibodies are immune system molecules. Each antibody targets a specific molecule from a pathogenic invader such as a virus; such recognition of “foreign” molecules is part of the normal immune response. In autoimmune diseases, however, some antibodies deleteriously target a person’s own proteins; such antibodies are known as autoantibodies, and their target proteins as autoantigens. Autoimmune diseases are chronic and often incurable. They affect 1.5­–2 million people in the UK, costing tens of £billions annually. 

Members of the supervisory team specialise in autoimmune diseases such as idiopathic inflammatory myopathy (IIMs), a varied set of autoimmune diseases targeting skeletal muscle and other organ systems. IIMs range from mild disease that responds to immunosuppressive therapy to severe disease with significant morbidity and mortality, despite aggressive treatment.

Myositis-specific autoantibodies (MSAs) are a hallmark of IIMs (1,2). About 15 MSAs are known, and they target ubiquitous, intracellular proteins. IIM patients rarely exhibit more than one MSA, and MSA identification is clinically useful: MSAs define distinct patient subsets, identifying patients at a higher risk of complications such as interstitial lung disease and cancer.

The project team has created a biosensor platform for autoantibody sensing. Proof of principle has been established and optimisation is ongoing for several myositis-specific autoantibodies. The student will improve utility and reliability of the biosensor by multiplexing to permit simultaneous measurement of an array of sensors, each sensor displaying a different autoantigen. In addition, integration of simple microfluidic structures with the sensors will enable use of small volumes of patient samples delivered to the sensor array in a user-friendly manner (lab-on-chip approach). The student will have access to >1500 IIM patient sera with matched anonymised clinical data, plus previously collected sera from patients with other relevant rheumatic diseases e.g. >300 systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) patient samples.

This multidisciplinary project will involve molecular biology, protein expression and purification, serology, biosensor development (optimisation of protein immobilisation, multiplexing, and integration of simple microfluidic structures), and measurement of patient samples.

Project keywords: autoantibody, autoantigen, autoimmune disease, biosensing, diagnostics, personalised medicine

Candidate Requirements:

Applicants should hold, or expect to receive, a Master’s level degree or an excellent/First class Bachelor’s degree (or the equivalent) in a relevant subject, e.g. life science, physical science, or engineering. 

Non-UK applicants must meet our English language entry requirement.

The successful student will be expected to complete annual progress reports and make a copy of their thesis available to the studentship funder, Applied Molecular Transport (AMT), upon its completion.

Enquiries and Applications:

Informal enquiries are welcomed and should be directed to Dr Stefan Bagby [Email Address Removed].

Formal applications should be made via the University of Bath’s online application form for a PhD in Biochemistry.

More information about applying for a PhD at Bath may be found on our website.

Funding Eligibility:

To be eligible for funding, you must qualify as a Home student. The eligibility criteria for Home fee status are detailed and too complex to be summarised here in full; however, as a general guide, the following applicants will normally qualify subject to meeting residency requirements: UK nationals (living in the UK or EEA/Switzerland), Irish nationals (living in the UK or EEA/Switzerland), those with Indefinite Leave to Remain and EU nationals with pre-settled or settled status in the UK under the EU Settlement Scheme). This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Additional information may be found on our fee status guidance webpage, on the GOV.UK website and on the UKCISA website.

Exceptional Overseas students (e.g. with a UK Master’s Distinction or international equivalent and relevant research experience), who are interested in this project, should contact the lead supervisor in the first instance to discuss the possibility of applying for supplementary funding.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion:

We value a diverse research environment and aim to be an inclusive university, where difference is celebrated and respected. We welcome and encourage applications from under-represented groups.

If you have circumstances that you feel we should be aware of that have affected your educational attainment, then please feel free to tell us about it in your application form. The best way to do this is a short paragraph at the end of your personal statement.

Funding Notes

The successful candidate will receive a 3-year studentship funded by Applied Molecular Transport (AMT). The funding will cover Home tuition fees and will provide a stipend at the UKRI rate (£15,609 per annum, 2021/22 rate) along with a budget for research/training expenses. Eligibility criteria apply – see Funding Eligibility section above.


(1) NJ McHugh, SL Tansley. Autoantibodies in myositis. Nat Rev Rheumatol 14 (2018) 290-302.
(2) V Riddell, S Bagby, NJ McHugh. Myositis autoantibodies: recent perspectives. Curr Opin Rheumatol 32 (2020) 548-552.
(3) SL Tansley et al, NJ McHugh, IMACS Group Myositis Autoantibody Scientific Interest Group. The promise, perceptions, and pitfalls of immunoassays for autoantibody testing in myositis. Arthritis Res Ther 22 (2020) 117.
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