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Modelling brain development using human induced pluripotent stem cells

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, January 11, 2019
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

The human brain is arguably the most complex structure among living organisms. Its development from single cells into a highly elaborate and unique organ has intrigued scientists for generations, yet remains incompletely understood. Recent scientific breakthroughs in the reprogramming of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) combined with tissue modelling and genome engineering offer unprecedented opportunities to model aspects of human brain development in the laboratory. Human iPSCs can be coaxed down several developmental trajectories including into neurons, thus allowing the investigation of human developmental brain processes in vitro. Moreover, human iPSC-derived models of brain disorders promise to identify potential therapeutic targets that could significantly improve the likelihood of successfully translating preclinical discoveries to the clinic.

This project will focus on the development of cerebellar models from human iPSCs. Only a handful of studies, including from the Becker group, have reported the generation of one particular cerebellar neuron type, i.e., Purkinje cells, from human iPSCs. Major limitations of the current protocol are the cumbersome and long protocol, the heterogeneity of cell composition and maturity of the differentiated neurons, and the necessity to grow human iPSC-derived cells together with mouse cerebellar progenitors. The goal of this iCASE studentship will be the development of robust and reproducible methods to generate specific and mature subpopulations of human cerebellar neurons. Specifically, the student will test the hypothesis that the overexpression of lineage-specific transcription factors will yield highly enriched and differentiated cerebellar neurons including Purkinje cells but also, for the first time, cerebellar granule neurons.

This collaborative project will bring together the expertise of the Becker group in cerebellar biology with the knowhow of the industrial partner, Axol Biosciences, in human stem cell culture. The Becker group are one of the few laboratories worldwide and the only one in the UK culturing cerebellar neurons from iPSCs. The student will be mainly based in Oxford, but will also benefit from an extended placement at Axol Biosciences in Cambridge. Axol Biosciences are a UK-based leading stem cell company with an in-house R&D team. The Axol Bioscience scientific team comprises scientists from a variety of different backgrounds and some with many years of laboratory experience. The core expertise in the lab is in human induced pluripotent stem cells and the directed differentiation to a variety of end-stage cell types. In addition, Axol Bioscience has molecular biology and electrophysiology expertise in their laboratories, allowing functional analysis of the iPSC-derived neuronal cells. Being part of a small and growing company will give the student an industrial perspective on stem cell biology, an opportunity to see which sectors are using Axol’s products and what they are used for. There will also be the chance to learn about the other aspects of the business, such as marketing, sales and logistics.

Attributes of suitable applicants:
We are looking for a highly motivated and intellectually curious student who has an interest in stem cell biology. The successful candidate is expected to be capable of working both independently and in teams and to possess good communication skills. Candidates should be on target for a first-class or strong upper second-class undergraduate degree in a relevant discipline. Previous experience in molecular biology and/or cell culture is strongly desirable.

Please note that the application deadline for this project has been brought forward to 11th January 2018.

How to apply:
If you are interested in applying for a BBSRC iCASE studentship please contact the named supervisor, Esther Becker () for further information and to determine whether they would encourage you to apply. Applicants who wish to apply for a BBSRC iCASE studentship should apply directly to the Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP via

Funding Notes

Funding notes: This project is funded for four years by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council BBSRC. BBSRC eligibility criteria apply (View Website Annexe 1). EU nationals who do not meet BBSRC residence criteria are encouraged to contact the programme administrator to check their eligibility for BBSRC funding before submitting a formal application. Successful students will receive a stipend of no less than the standard RCUK stipend rate, currently set at £14,777 per year, which will usually be supplemented by the industrial partner.


Nayler SP, Becker EB (2018). The use of stem cell-derived neurons for understanding development and disease of the cerebellum. Front. Neurosci. 12:646
Watson LM, Wong MMK, Vowles J, Cowley SA, Becker EB (2018). A simplified method for generating Purkinje cells from human induced pluripotent stem cells. Cerebellum 17(4), 419-27

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