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Elphinstone Scholarship - Developing new anti-cancer drugs: computational design and chemoenzymatic production of cyclic peptide inhibitors of the oncogenic mortalin-p53 interaction

   School of Medicine, Medical Sciences & Nutrition

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  Dr Wael Houssen, Prof Anne Donaldson, Dr Bruce Milne, Dr Sinclair Dundas  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This drug discovery PhD project will involve computational design, chemoenzymatic synthesis and experimental testing of modified cyclic peptides engineered to function as potential chemotherapeutics. Specifically, we aim to interfere with cancer cell growth by inhibiting the oncogenic mortalin-p53 interaction. The broad profile of cancer types that over-express mortalin [1,2] suggests that novel anti-mortalin-p53 drugs could be clinically useful in many therapeutic contexts.

Previous attempts to develop small molecule inhibitors for mortalin-p53 have been hampered by the lack of knowledge of the specific site of interaction between the two proteins and by nephrotoxicity of the mortalin allosteric inhibitor MKT-077 that ended its clinical trial testing [3]. However, growing evidence indicates that cyclic peptides surpass traditional small molecules in inhibiting disease-relevant protein-protein interactions [4]. We have developed computational methods to design cyclic peptide inhibitors of protein-protein interactions [5] and effective chemoenzymatic approaches to produce constrained modified cyclic peptides [6].

In this project, the student will use these methods to computationally design modified cyclic peptides expected to function as highly specific mortalin-p53 inhibitors; and assay their potential as anti-mortalin / p53 reactivator drugs.

Ideally, we seek an individual with a strong background in chemistry, biochemistry, and/or molecular modelling and drug design, and an interest in transferring their expertise towards improving cancer treatment strategies.

You will gain skills in state-of-the-art computational chemistry techniques, recombinant protein expression, synthetic peptide chemistry, in vitro biosynthesis and bioassay development. The supervisory team have extensive expertise in the required fields and their labs contain the necessary equipment for this type of work such as thermocyclers, automated microwave peptide synthesiser, FPLC and HPLC systems while the institute provides excellent core facilities including NMR and MS, imaging, microarrays, FACS, Biacore, and isothermal calorimetry. CFisUC (Centre for Physics at the University of Coimbra, Portugal) hosts several High Performance Computing systems which will be available for the project.

Informal enquiries are encouraged, please contact the lead supervisor Dr Wael Houssen ([Email Address Removed]) for further information.

 Essential background of student:

Applicants should hold a 1st Class UK Honours degree (or international equivalent) in a relevant subject. Those with a 2:1 UK Honours degree (or international equivalent) may be considered, provided they have (or are expected to achieve) a Distinction or Commendation at Master’s level.


This project will be based within the Institute of Medical Sciences (IMS), part of the School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, at the University of Aberdeen. The IMS is located on the Foresterhill Health Campus, one of the largest clinical complexes in Europe, which also includes the Institute of Applied Health Sciences, the Rowett Institute, and a large teaching hospital.



Please note: The funding for this project covers tuition fees and research costs only, no stipend or living costs are provided.

  • Formal applications can be completed online: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/pgap/login.php
  • You should apply for Medical Sciences (PhD) to ensure your application is passed to the correct team.
  • Please clearly note the name of the lead supervisor and project title on the application form. If you do not mention the project title and the supervisor on your application it will not be considered for the studentship.
  • Please include a personal statement, an up-to-date copy of your academic CV, and relevant educational certificates and transcripts (Undergraduate and postgraduate (if applicable)).
  • Please note: you DO NOT need to provide a research proposal with this application
  • CV's submitted directly through a FindAPhD enquiry WILL NOT be considered.
  • General application enquiries can be made to [Email Address Removed] 

Funding Notes

This 36 Month project is funded by a prestigious University of Aberdeen Elphinstone Scholarship. This opportunity is open to UK and International students and includes funding to cover tuition fees and research costs only. No stipend or living costs are provided.
Funding for international students does not cover visa costs (either for yourself or for accompanying family members), immigration health surcharge or any other additional costs associated with relocation to the UK.
The expected start date is February 2023.


1- Wadhwa R et al. (2006) Int J Cancer 118, 2973.
2- Dundas SR et al. (2005) J Pathol 205, 74.
3- Wadhwa R, et al. (2000) Cancer Res 60, 6818.
4- Villar EA et al. (2014) Nat Chem Biol 10, 723.
5- Idress M et al. (2020) Molecules 25, 922.
6- Houssen WE et al. (2014) Angew Chem Int Ed 53, 14171.
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