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Predicting breast cancer spread

Institute of Medical Sciences

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Prof Valerie Speirs No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)
Aberdeen United Kingdom Cancer Biology Cell Biology Molecular Biology Pathology Tissue Engineering

About the Project

This project is one of 19 four year PhD Studentships funded by Medical Research Scotland ( to be delivered jointly by the named University and External Partner Organisation (EPO). The Studentship will provide the first-class academic and additional training provided by the EPO needed to equip the successful candidate for a science career in an increasingly competitive market.

"Predicting breast cancer metastasis using bespoke humanised 3D in vitro models" to be delivered by the University of Aberdeen [Supervisors: Professor Valerie Speirs (Institute of Medical Sciences, University of Aberdeen) and Dr Anna Riemen (Aberdeen Centre for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Health, University of Aberdeen)] and Animal Free Research UK ( [External Partner Organisation supervisor: Dr Alpesh Patel, Science Manager].

Metastasis remains the major cause of morbidity and mortality in cancer patients and in many cases is incurable, especially when it spreads to bone and vital organs. In breast cancer, different subtypes exist, displaying different metastatic tropism. Luminal ER+ breast cancer, the most common subtype, typically spreads to bone, while in HER2+ disease, spread to liver is more common. We have started to develop 3D and microfluidic laboratory models using human tissues and cells to study metastasis. Building on this, we will test the hypothesis that fully humanised perfused in vitro models can be developed to determine metastatic potential in ER+ and HER2+ breast cancer. This will involve further development of an existing platform, PerfusionPal, as a model of metastasis using 3D cultures of ER+ and HER2+ breast cancer cell lines initially as proof of concept. Once established, patient-derived primary cells will be used, obtained from the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. A bespoke, higher throughput microfluidics-based system will be developed in parallel. These closer-to-patient humanised laboratory models will focus on rapid identification of ER+ and HER2+ breast cancers at risk of bone and liver metastasis allowing us to address a clinical problem whilst avoiding the use of animals. During the project, the student will spend up to 6 months at Animal Free Research UK (AFRUK), a research charity, gaining additional transferable skills in the charitable sector and in scientific communication. AFRUK is a stakeholder in the interdisciplinary EPSRC-SFI Joint Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Engineered Tissues for Discovery, Industry and Medicine (, hosted by The Division of Biomedical Engineering within the School of Engineering at the University of Glasgow, which will offer the student opportunities to attend some of the CDT training activities e.g. in microfluidic design and biomedical engineering and how to apply these in biomedical settings, working with students from different disciplines e.g. engineering, chemistry, physics, mathematics, medicine in collaboration with Professor Huabing Yin. The long-term goal is to be able to translate this technology to establish a rapid, cheap, animal-free approach to determine the likelihood of patients at risk of developing metastasis before this becomes a serious clinical problem and when medical intervention is still possible.


Enquiries should be sent by email to Professor Valerie Speirs:

[Email Address Removed]


Applicants must have obtained, or expect to obtain, a first or 2.1 UK honours degree, or equivalent for degrees obtained outside the UK, in an appropriate discipline. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered provided they have a Merit/Commendation/Distinction at Masters level. Applications are welcome from UK nationals as well as EU nationals that hold UK settled or pre-settled status.

Applications must be submitted online via the following link

Please apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Medical Sciences, to ensure that your application is passed to the correct person for processing.

Please note, your application may be shared with the funders of this PhD Studentship, Medical Research Scotland and Animal Free Research UK.

Interviews are expected to take place approxiamtely 3-4 weeks after the closing date for applications. In light of the current coronavirus situation, interviews may be conducted by video conference.

It is anticipated that the PhD Studentship will start 1 October 2021.

Funding Notes

PhD Studentship provides: an annual tax-free stipend of £18,500, increasing to £19,000 over the four years; tuition fees at home rates only; consumables; and generous travel allowance. International fees are not covered.

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