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MRC DiMeN Doctoral Training Partnership: Genetic epilepsy: identifying mechanisms and potential drug treatments, from nematodes to humans

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  • Full or part time
    Prof Alan Morgan
    Prof A Trevelyan
    Dr A Ilie
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder that has a major impact on patient mortality, morbidity and quality of life. Clinical management remains extremely problematic, held back both by diagnostic and treatment limitations. Around 40% of cases are considered to be “genetic epilepsy” (~250,000 people in UK), but often, the identity of the genes involved eludes us. However, a recent landmark paper has identified mis-sense mutations in GABAA receptors as a common cause of genetic epilepsy (Lancet Neurology (2018) 17, 699). This presents a timely opportunity to understand how these mutations in GABAA receptors lead to epilepsy and to translate this knowledge into much needed new therapies (around 1/3 of epileptics are resistant to current medication).

Our novel project combines the simple molecular genetics of C. elegans with the translational power of electrophysiological recording from mammalian neurons, to identify potential new antiepileptic drugs. This capitalises on the different expertise of the supervisory team in C. elegans disease models (Morgan) and rodent and human brain slice electrophysiology (Trevelyan, Ilie).

The Morgan lab recently published that loss-of-function mutations in the unc-49 GABAA receptor cause seizure-like behaviour in C. elegans and that this model can be used to screen for anti-epileptic drugs (Reference 1). In this project, we will rescue these unc-49 worms by expressing either wild type or epilepsy-associated human mutant GABAA receptors. This simple method will identify mutations that impair human GABAA receptor function, since these will be less effective at rescuing the unc-49 seizure phenotype. Worms expressing defective GABAA receptors responses will then be screened using known GABAergic drugs and novel compounds to identify potential new treatments.

We will then test the efficacy of these identified candidate drugs in simple assays of cortical network function perfected by Trevelyan and Ilie, using rodent and human brain slices. These assays have been developed from extensive in vitro studies, that have been validated as representative of the activity patterns also seen in vivo, of spontaneous, medically-refractory epilepsy in humans (Reference 2). This work will rigorously test the translational potential of candidate drugs, thereby priming future clinical trials. Importantly, this Studentship will provide unique research training in epileptology, using state-of-the-art techniques in molecular genetics, pharmacology and electrophysiology, and giving experience in model systems ranging from nematode worms through rodents to the human brain.

Supervisor web sites:
Supervisor 1, Alan Morgan (Liverpool):

Supervisor 2, Andrew Trevelyan (Newcastle):

Supervisor 3, Andrei Ilie (Newcastle):

Benefits of being in the DiMeN DTP:
This project is part of the Discovery Medicine North Doctoral Training Partnership (DiMeN DTP), a diverse community of PhD students across the North of England researching the major health problems facing the world today. Our partner institutions (Universities of Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield) are internationally recognised as centres of research excellence and can offer you access to state-of the-art facilities to deliver high impact research.
We are very proud of our student-centred ethos and committed to supporting you throughout your PhD. As part of the DTP, we offer bespoke training in key skills sought after in early career researchers, as well as opportunities to broaden your career horizons in a range of non-academic sectors.
Being funded by the MRC means you can access additional funding for research placements, international training opportunities or internships in science policy, science communication and beyond. See how our current DiMeN students have benefited from this funding here:
Further information on the programme can be found on our website:

Funding Notes

Studentships are fully funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) for 3.5yrs
Stipend at national UKRI standard rate
Tuition fees
Research training and support grant (RTSG)
Travel allowance
Studentships commence: 1st October 2019.

To qualify, you must be a UK or EU citizen who has been resident in the UK/EU for 3 years prior to commencement. Applicants must have obtained, or be about to obtain, at least a 2.1 honours degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject. All applications are scored blindly based on merit. Please read additional guidance here:
Good luck!


1. Wong, S.Q., Jones, A., Dodd, S., Grimes, D., Barclay, J.W., Marson, A.G., Cunliffe, V.T., Burgoyne, R.D., Sills, G.J. and Morgan, A. (2018) A Caenorhabditis elegans assay of seizure-like activity optimised for identifying antiepileptic drugs and their mechanisms of action. Journal of Neuroscience Methods 309, 132-142.

2. Schevon, C.A., Weiss, S., Goodman, R.R., McKhann, G., Jr. Emerson, R.G., Trevelyan, A.J. (2012) Evidence of an inhibitory restraint of seizure activity in humans. Nature Communications 3, 1060.

3. Cunliffe, V.T., Baines, R.A., Giachello, C.N.G., Lin, W.-H., Morgan, A., Russell, C., Walker, M.C., Williams, R.S.B. (2015) Epilepsy research methods update: Understanding the causes of epileptic seizures and identifying new treatments using non-mammalian model organisms. Seizure 24, 44-51.

How good is research at University of Liverpool in Clinical Medicine?
(joint submission with Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine)

FTE Category A staff submitted: 143.50

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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