Don't miss our weekly PhD newsletter | Sign up now Don't miss our weekly PhD newsletter | Sign up now

  GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP PhD project: Advanced detection of synthetic cannabinoids used in prisons in the South West (GW4) region

   Department of Life Sciences

This project is no longer listed on and may not be available.

Click here to search for PhD studentship opportunities
  Prof Stephen Husbands  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the GW4 BioMed2 MRC Doctoral Training Partnership which is offering up to 20 studentships for entry in October 2023.

The DTP brings together the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter to develop the next generation of biomedical researchers. Students will have access to the combined research strengths, training expertise and resources of the four research-intensive universities. More information may be found on the DTP’s website.

Supervisory Team:

  • Prof Stephen Husbands (lead), University of Bath, Department of Life Sciences
  • Dr Ian Blagbrough, University of Bath, Department of Life Sciences
  • Dr Jenny Scott, University of Bristol, Medical School, Centre for Academic Primary Care
  • Dr Tom Freeman, University of Bath, Department of Psychology
  • Prof Celia Morgan, University of Exeter, Washington Singer Laboratories, Department of Psychology

The Project:

Synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs), found in street products such as “Spice”, continue to generate considerable scientific interest. Due to their high cannabinoid receptor binding affinity, SCRAs have a substantial risk of adverse effects including mental (psychotic symptoms, anxiety) and physical outcomes (seizures, death). The clinical management of Spice is hindered by a lack of evidence-based guidelines and, importantly, the laboratory detection of Spice is obfuscated by the rapidly evolving nature of different synthetic compounds “on the street” and the inability of conventional analytical methods to detect them. This studentship will address these challenges in a series of novel, interdisciplinary studies: 1) How can novel analytical techniques improve the detection of Spice? In Year 1, the student will be trained in quantitative Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (q-NMR) spectroscopy and advanced Mass Spectrometry (MS). These studies also feed into our work to develop a new device for the rapid detection of SCRAs based on fluorescence spectral fingerprinting (collaboration with Dr Pudney, Biology and Biochemistry, Bath), so that the student will be part of a multi-disciplinary team working in this area. The student will apply these methods to analyse samples of Spice and drugs supplied from the police (Avon and Somerset, Swindon), Bristol Drugs Project (BDP) and from HMP Bristol. The samples will be analysed in our new in vitro smoking model (recently published in RSC Analytical Methods) to see how the inhalation profile of Spice is related to the parent compound. Also, as a part of Year 1, (Exeter) vetting processes will be undertaken and ethical approval for the prison project sought in order to be in position to carry out these studies in Year 2. 2) In Year 2, the student will work within HMP Exeter and HMP Dartmoor, with a potential to expand to HMP Channings Wood, investigating the impacts of Spice on cognition, aggression, and mental and psychological health. The Exeter team have privileged access to the prisons and have existing collaborations with Exeter Drugs Project (EDP) which has the contract for providing drug services to prisons and working with probation services on discharge. The student will be trained in qualitative analysis to interview inmates who have been identified as Spice users; themes will be extracted relating to use and potentially inform the development of a behavioural intervention for use in prisons (Dr Scott). We use a prison approved device (experience sampling method) to allow inmates to monitor their mood and wellbeing dynamically over a 7-day period and will link this with confidential self-reported drug use, as well as urine analysis. The student will be trained in advanced statistical techniques such as multilevel modelling for quantitative analysis of this complex dataset and then, in Year 3, these components will be integrated, the relevance of the results verified using such advanced statistics. This studentship has the added value of being truly interdisciplinary offering a range of high-quality training opportunities between analytical chemistry and neuropsychopharmacology, with quantitative analysis and advanced statistics, manipulating complex big data sets in the analysis. This PhD will be challenging for the student, but its feasibility is supported by our previous cross-disciplinary collaborations which have resulted in various co-authored publications across all supervisors. The student will be trained in dissemination to generate impact through national clinics (Prof Morgan), The EU Drugs Agency (Dr Freeman), and The Society for the Study of Addiction (Prof Morgan, Dr Freeman) and charities (Dr Scott). They will learn about industrial knowledge transfer and maximising their research impact as part of the Bath Course.


Applicants must have obtained, or be expected to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an area appropriate to the skills requirements of the project. Academic qualifications are considered alongside significant relevant non-academic experience.

Non-UK applicants will also be required to have met the English language entry requirements of the University of Bath.

Enquiries and Applications:

Informal enquiries are welcomed and should be directed to Prof Stephen Husbands on email address [Email Address Removed].

Formal applications must be submitted direct to the GW4 BioMed2 DTP using their online application form.

A list of all available projects and guidance on how to apply may be found on the DTP’s website. You may apply for up to 2 projects.


IMPORTANT: You do NOT need to apply to the University of Bath at this stage – only those applicants who are successful in obtaining an offer of funding from the DTP will be required to submit an application for an offer of study from Bath.

Biological Sciences (4) Chemistry (6) Mathematics (25) Medicine (26) Nursing & Health (27) Psychology (31)

Funding Notes

Candidates may be considered for a 4-year GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP studentship covering tuition fees, a stipend (£17,668 p/a in 2022/23) and a Research & Training Support grant of between £2,000 and £5,000 p/a dependent on project requirements. Studentships are open to both Home and International students; however, International applicants should note that funding does NOT cover the cost of a student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK. 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.


• Craft, S., Ferris, J. A., Barratt, M. J., Maier, L. J., Lynskey, M. T., Winstock, A. R., & Freeman, T. P. (2021). Clinical withdrawal symptom profile of synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists and comparison of effects with high potency cannabis. Psychopharmacology, 1-9.
• May B, Naqi HA, Tipping M, Scott J, Husbands SM, Blagbrough IS, Pudney CR. (2019) Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists Detection Using Fluorescence Spectral Fingerprinting. Analytical Chemistry, 91, 12971-12979.
• Naqi HA, Pudney CR, Husbands SM, Blagbrough IS (2019). Analysis of synthetic cannabinoid agonists and their degradation products after combustion in a smoking simulator. Analytical Methods, 11, 3101-3107.
• Morgan C, Freeman T, Hindocha C, Schafer G, Gardner C, Curran HV (2018). Individual and combined effects of acute delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol on psychotomimetic symptoms and memory function. Translational Psychiatry, 8, 181.

Where will I study?