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Preventing radiotherapy-induced damage to the salivary glands in head and neck cancer patients to improve post-treatment quality of life.

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  • Full or part time
    Dr E Emmerson
    Dr T Kunath
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

The newly established four-year Medical Sciences & Translational Research PhD with integrated studies in Engagement for Impact Programme will combine medical science and translational research projects with integrated and credited teaching in science communication, public engagement, patient involvement, data design and informatics, via established MSc courses and/or new Engagement for Impact courses. Our vision is to teach a generation of researchers equipped to address and solve real-world problems through excellent science and who have the engagement and impact skills we believe will give them an edge in their future careers.

This potential PhD project, selectable by successful applicants to this Programme, is supervised by Dr Elaine Emmerson ( at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, with co-supervisor Dr Tilo Kunath.

Project Summary:
Despite being a life-saving treatment for patients with head and neck cancer, a side-effect of radiotherapy is damage to salivary glands, leading to the chronic condition xerostomia, or dry mouth (Emmerson, et al. 2018). Patients with xerostomia can experience severe difficulties eating and speaking and data collected by The Swallows Trust indicates that while most head and neck cancer patients experience xerostomia, 78% were not prepared for the impact on their quality of life (Curtis, et al. 2018). This side-effect of cancer treatment is vastly underappreciated and understudied.

To date, no restorative treatment for xerostomia exists. Alongside current efforts in the Emmerson lab to study the regenerative capacity of the salivary glands following radiotherapy, this PhD project will focus on determining if a pharmacological approach can also prevent or reduce radiation-induced damage to the glands. Testing the effects of compounds that protect against free radical-mediated damage, the student will use ex vivo cell assays using human patient-derived salivary glands, alongside a well-validated murine model of therapeutic irradiation, combined with functional readouts (e.g. saliva production) and in-depth analysis (e.g. RNA-seq, lineage tracing), to understand the mechanisms of damage prevention.

Emmerson, et al. Salivary glands regenerate after radiation injury through SOX2-mediated secretory cell replacement. 2018. EMBO Molecular Medicine. 10(3): e8051.

Curtis, et al. Patient reports of mouth symptoms after radiotherapy treatment for Head & Neck Cancer: An International Study. 2018. European Medical Journal. 6(1):73¬74.

Engagement for Impact:

The scientific content of the PhD will be complimented with stakeholder engagement throughout the project, which will include communication with head and neck cancer patients, particularly those who are yet to start radiotherapy, healthcare professionals (radiologists and oncologists) and patient support groups. In addition, the project will engage with G-Lands: an out of body experience, a collaborative project between the Emmerson lab and artist Emily Fong, in partnership with ASCUS Art and Science, following the salivary gland specimen on its journey from patient to laboratory.

The project will have measurable outcomes for both the scientific content and the engagement content. The ultimate scientific outcome will be to prevent or ameliorate xerostomia. The engagement outcome will be focussed on reducing the high level (78%) of patients that were not prepared for the impact of xerostomia. This will involve evaluating patient understanding and preparedness in a local cohort (e.g. throughout NHS Lothian) throughout the 4 years of study.

At present there is very little engagement between head and neck cancer patients and the healthcare professionals they do not come in to direct contact with during their treatment (e.g. pathologists, scientists). This project will involve the student interacting with a diverse team of partners, including a local patient support group, The Throat Cancer Foundation, and patients and their families; and healthcare professionals involved in the treatment of head and neck cancer, including oncologists, surgeons, radiologists, pathologists and dentists; and promoting multi-way communication between these groups. It will inspire scientists and clinicians to engage from beyond the laboratory or hospital, and provide a voice for head and neck cancer patients.

The student will present their data at national and international conferences, will publish their research in both scientific journals and public engagement journals and will be directly involved in producing informative material for patients and healthcare professionals, which will be printed and distributed in clinic and hospital settings and through patient support groups.

Funding Notes

This is one of the potential projects in the University of Edinburgh College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine’s new 4 year Medical Sciences & Translational Research PhD with integrated studies in Engagement for Impact Programme. Successful applicants will select their preferred PhD projects from the available options in discussion with proposed supervisors. Three studentships are available in the programme, providing full tuition fees (EU/UK rate only), stipend of at least £15,000 per year, £450 annual travel and conference allowance, dedicated engagement support grant of £1,500, and £5,000 annually towards research consumable costs.
Apply before 26th January 2020 at

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