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EPSRC DTP PhD project: Engineering nanosponges to sequester bacterial exotoxins for protection against severe infection

   Department of Life Sciences

   Sunday, February 05, 2023  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The University of Bath is inviting applications for the following PhD project commencing in October 2023.

Eligible applicants will be considered for a fully-funded studentship – for more information, see the Funding Notes section below.

Supervisory Team:

Lead supervisor: Dr Maisem Laabei (Department of Life Sciences)

Co-supervisors: Prof Toby Jenkins (Department of Chemistry) and Dr Maciek Kopeć (Department of Chemistry)

Overview of the Research:

Bacterial infections represent significant morbidity, mortality, and economic cost worldwide, challenges that have been made more severe by the increase in antimicrobial resistance and therapy failure.

One major bacterial pathogen, Staphylococcus aureus, is becoming increasingly difficult to treat; the WHO has placed this bacterium in the top 10 priority pathogens list where an international effort is required to prevent S. aureus infections. Globally, an estimated 100,000 deaths are attributed to, and almost 1 million deaths associated with resistant S. aureus infections.

S. aureus causes a suite of diverse infections ranging from superficial skin disease to life-threatening and often fatal bacteremia, pneumonia, and endocarditis. Central to S. aureus pathogenicity is the secretion of toxins that promote disease, causing tissue damage and interfering with host immune responses.

Biomaterial-based devices have valuable therapeutic potential as they can mimic naturally occurring structures. Cell membrane coated nanoparticles could be employed as a toxin decoy and capture platform, inactivating secreted toxins before they can interact and damage host cell membranes or elicit severe inflammatory diseases. These nanoparticles represent a novel virulence targeted strategy that would be a powerful adjunctive therapy to treat bacterial infections which are resistant to antimicrobial intervention.

This truly interdisciplinary project will utilise cutting edge materials science, biophysical chemistry, and molecular microbiology techniques in order to optimise and develop ‘nanosponges’ displaying membranes isolated from human immune cells which are frequently targeted by S aureus toxins.

The project has three main aims:

Aim 1: Engineering and biophysical characterisation of immune cell membrane decorated nanoparticles (nanosponges)

Aim 2: Functional evaluation of nanosponges against S aureus toxins

Aim 3: Examining the efficacy of nanosponges to prevent invasive infection in an invertebrate in vivo model

Successful applicants will join the Laabei, Jenkins and Kopeć groups, an existing research collaboration at the University of Bath focusing on using chemistry, material science and microbiology to improve human health. The applicant will gain experience and expertise in a range of interdisciplinary techniques related to materials science, microscopy and bio-imaging, polymer chemistry, protein purification, molecular biology, and microbiology.

Project keywords: biomedical engineering; materials science; polymer nanosponges; bacteria toxins; infectious diseases.

Candidate Requirements:

Applicants should hold, or expect to receive, a First Class or good Upper Second Class UK Honours degree (or the equivalent) in Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Materials Science, Biomedical Engineering, Bioscience or Medicine. A master’s level qualification would also be advantageous.

Microbiology experience is not an absolute pre-requisite but the student will be expected to rapidly learn microbiology methods. Applicants should have an interest in clinical infectious disease.

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

Enquiries and Applications:

Applicants are encouraged to contact Dr Maisem Laabei on email address  before applying to find out more about the project and to discuss their suitability for the role.

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

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

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

Candidates applying for this project may be considered for a 3.5-year Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC DTP) studentship. Funding covers tuition fees, a stipend (£17,668 per annum, 2022/23 rate) and research/training expenses (£1,000 per annum). EPSRC DTP studentships are open to both Home and International students; however, in line with guidance from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the number of awards available to International candidates will be limited to 30% of the total.


Laabei et al 2021: Significant variability exists in the cytotoxicity of global methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus lineages. Microbiology.
Thet […] Jenkins 2020 SPaCE Swab: Point-of-Care Sensor for Simple and Rapid Detection of Acute Wound Infection. ACS Sensors.
Laabei […] Jenkins 2014. Investigating the lytic activity and structural properties of Staphylococcus aureus phenol soluble modulin (PSM) peptide toxins. Biochimica Et Biophysica Acta-Biomembranes.
Kopeć et al. 2020. Surface-grafted polyacrylonitrile brushes with aggregation-induced emission properties. Polymer Chemistry.

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