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MRC DiMeN Doctoral Training Partnership: Liquid biopsy of the liver to improve molecular targeted cancer therapy

Project Description

Molecular targeted therapies have revolutionised oncology. However, whilst patient life-expectancy is improving, these therapies carry a risk of causing damage to healthy tissues in the body, especially to the liver. Depending on the severity of liver injury, the therapeutic dose may be reduced or even discontinued. This poses a serious dilemma if the tumour is responsive. Unfortunately, the interpretation of current liver injury markers to tell us about the degree of damage is not straightforward, and whilst it is widely-accepted that we need better markers of liver injury, this area of cancer drug safety has not been previously widely studied.

The objective of this PhD project is to improve this situation, and thereby to improve the use of molecular targeted cancer therapy. The PhD will be based at the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science (CDSS), established in 2008, (, and Twitter: @CDSS_Liverpool also @3DbioNet) working with primary supervisor Chris Goldring, second supervisor Amy Chadwick and third supervisor Francesco Falciani (all shown on the CDSS team page: and will build on our work showing microRNA miR-122 as a biomarker of the liver, and exploit the particular characteristics of miRs as biomarkers, in order to improve cancer therapy.
The project will involve close collaboration with surgeons and oncologists, as well as our team of drug safety scientists. It will involve miRNA analysis using next generation sequencing (NGS) of the major cell types in human liver from around 10 donors (we have an excellent link to the hepatobiliary surgical unit at a local teaching hospital). The NGS analysis will be done through collaboration with a large international academic-pharmaceutical industry consortium called Transbioline, which fund us until 2024 to look at biomarkers of liver injury. This part of the project will enable the successful candidate to develop links and collaborations with other scientists in Industry. The results of the project will tell us about inter-individual variation in expression of new liver biomarkers. The results will also tell us about the selectivity of cell expression – this should allow us to improve interpretation as to the cellular target when a particular molecular targeted therapy is hepatotoxic. The final part of the project will involve the culture of isolated liver cells and will use a panel of relevant therapies to conduct time-courses and dose-responses to investigate toxicity in vitro, such as mitochondrial perturbation – this part of the project will be supervised by Dr Amy Chadwick, who is an expert in this area. The in vitro study will yield a deeper understanding of the toxicological mechanisms of these therapies, with potential for translating the results to humans through our access to patients on these therapies.

As well as the cell biology and bioanalytical training that the student will receive, using primary human samples, there will be an important quantitative skills element –supervisor Prof Francesco Falciani is an expert in large data set analysis and bioinformatics interpretation: (

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 2020.

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: View Website

Good luck!


Weaver et al. Managing the challenge of drug-induced liver injury: a roadmap for
the development and deployment of preclinical predictive models, Nature Reviews Drug Discovery In press.

Starkey Lewis et al. Circulating microRNAs as potential markers of human drug-induced liver injury. Hepatology. 2011 54:1767-76. doi: 10.1002/hep.24538.

Clarke et al. The Role of Eif6 in Skeletal Muscle Homeostasis Revealed by Endurance Training Co-expression Networks. Cell Rep. 2017 21:1507-1520. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2017.10.040.

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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