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EASTBIO: Impact of steroid hormone environment on immune cell phenotype and function

  • Full or part time
    Prof I McEwan
    Dr D Gibson
    Prof H M Wilson
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, January 05, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description


Professor Iain J McEwan (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Douglas Gibson (University of Edinburgh)

Professor Heather Wilson (University of Aberdeen)

Gender differences are increasingly recognised as factors in disease susceptibility, drug response and immune cell function. However, the underpinning biology is less well understood. Sex steroids including androgens are master regulators of cell function with well-established roles in regulation of metabolism, reproduction and cancers.

Androgens act through the androgen receptor and function as ‘Goldilocks factors’ with either too little, or too much, having an adverse effect on tissue function. Androgen concentrations differ with age, sex and disease which may underpin differences in prevalence and prognosis of several inflammatory disorders such as cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Androgen replacement has benefits for men with low testosterone (due to hypogonadism) and may have more general health benefits for ageing men and women by maintaining muscle and bone integrity and cardiovascular health - although this is controversial. The impact of androgens and androgen therapies on the immune landscape and aging immune system has largely been unexplored. This is important as changes in the immune system can increase susceptibility to infection or cancer progression if underactive and enhance susceptibility to autoimmunity and inflammatory diseases if overactivated.

We aim to investigate the regulation of androgen receptor expression and function in response to hormonal and immune cell modulators in macrophages and other immune cells as key regulators in health and disease.

Specific Research Questions and Objectives
1. Is the androgen receptor gene and/or protein differentially regulated in immune cells?
2. Do androgens alter the phenotype and/or function of immune cells?

As the androgen receptor acts as the gatekeeper for androgen action it is essential, we gain a full understanding of the molecular systems responsible for controlling expression and activation in diverse tissues. Using molecular biology approaches we have recently identified and characterised a novel binding site for androgen receptor, within its own gene, which mediates regulation of receptor expression in a cell type-dependent manner. We have established cell resources from male (prostate) and female (endometrium, breast) tissues and developed primary and co-culture systems to investigate immune cell cross-talk. Furthermore, we have established key functional assays for assessing the impacts of receptor agonists. We are therefore uniquely positioned to investigate and compare the molecular basis for regulation of the androgen receptor mRNA and protein and how this impact on immune cell phenotype and function.

Research Training
The supervisory team have both national and international reputations in the areas of immunology and macrophage and mast cell function as well as androgen signalling in male and female tissues, which makes us well placed to support the proposed project goals and training objectives.

The student will receive extensive training in cell biology, immunology and endocrinology as well as in advanced molecular methodologies specific to the project. A strong emphasis will be placed on training in experimental design, data collection and data analysis including statistics. The student will also benefit from the dynamic research environments offered by the Institute of Medical Sciences (Aberdeen) and the Centre for Inflammation Research (Edinburgh) as well as the exciting range of molecular, cellular and in vivo models that have been developed by the Wilson, Gibson and McEwan laboratories.

Application Procedure:

Please send your completed EASTBIO application form, along with academic transcripts and CV to Alison McLeod at . Two references should be provided by the deadline using the EASTBIO reference form. Please advise your referees to return the reference form to .

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership. This opportunity is only open to UK nationals (or EU students who have been resident in the UK for 3+ years immediately prior to the programme start date) due to restrictions imposed by the funding body. Queries on eligibility? Email Alison McLeod ().

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a First Class Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2:1 Honours degree may be considered provided they have a Distinction at Masters level.


1. Hunter et al (2018) Tissue control of androgen action: The ups and downs of androgen receptor expression. Mol Cell Endocrinol. 465:27-35.
2. Trigunaite A, Dimo J, Jørgensen TN. (2015) Suppressive effects of androgens on the immune system. Cell Immunol. 294(2):87-94.
3. Gibson et al (2014). Evidence of androgen action in endometrial and ovarian cancers. Endocr Relat Cancer. 21(4):T203-18.

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