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Why do healthy cells become cancerous? Elucidating the origin of pre-cancerous cells.

Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

About the Project

Applications are invited for a 3-year full-time PhD studentship funded by the Barry Reed Cancer Research Fund and Barts Cancer Institute. The aim of this project is to test a novel hypothesis in how cancer starts, and to understand the natural emergence of cancers in human tissues.

Age is the single most common determinant of cancer: to first order, cancer is a disease of ageing. Gene alterations play an important role in driving cancer initiation and progression. Recently it has been shown that normal tissues, in all of us, from young ages, harbour a myriad of dangerous DNA mutations, sometimes in large clones of cells, as we get older. Yet most people will not develop cancer, so we are forced to go back to the blackboard and ask the question: What actually is causing cancer? How do tumours naturally emerge in human tissues?

In this project we will test an innovative hypothesis, based on our intriguing recent discovery that developmental reversion, in experimental human embryonic stem systems, induces transiently a cancer-like state. Potentially related to this, when our tissues are stressed and old, the regenerative process seems to reignite genes that are normally only expressed during embryonic developmental stages. Why this happens it is not known. What the consequence of this is and how this might relate to cancer is not known.

This project is aimed at an ambitious candidate with strong lab experience in biochemistry and/or molecular biology, with good numeracy skills, willing to undertake an interdisciplinary approach to solve this scientific problem. If you have programming skills or desire to learn programming and/or experience with working with mouse models it is a bonus. The project will commence in September 2021 and has funding for 3 years. The student will be based primarily at the Barts Cancer Institute, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD), Charterhouse Square in the City of London.

We are a small scientific team, with strong track record in epigenetic mechanisms and we are core members of a wider Queen Mary University community of group leaders interested in epigenetics research ( At Barts Cancer Institute we have a strong sense of community, supportive of skills development with the emphasis on group driven research work creating a highly collaborative and sociable environment for PhD students.

Essential criteria:

  • Minimum of 2:1 in first degree alongside Master’s degree, or first class BSc, in Molecular biology/biochemistry/genetics or related.
  • Research experience (>3 months lab based) in at least one of the following subjects: molecular biology, biochemistry, developmental biology.
  • A-level B+ or above in maths or physics
  • Strong communications skills and an interest in public engagement. The successful candidate will be a student ambassador for the Barry Reed Cancer Research Fund and may be required to attend public engagement and charity events throughout the year.

Desirable criteria: 

  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills (ranging from informal 1:1 discussion to formal presentations).
  • Experience with in vivo mouse work and/or other mammalian systems.
  • Experience in analysing genomics data or any other high-dimensional datasets.
  • Experience in statistical analysis and programming (R/Python).
  • Ability to work as part of a diverse team.

English Language Requirements:

Applicants for whom English is not a first language will also require a minimum IELTS score of 6.5 (with 6.0 in the written component) or equivalent, unless your undergraduate degree was studied in, and awarded by, an English speaking country. For more information on acceptable English language qualifications please see here.

For an informal discussion, please contact the lead project supervisor: Dr Gabriella Ficz, , subject ‘PhD applicant’.

Funding Notes

The studentship includes the following funding for 3 years:
- A tax-free annual stipend of £17,609 (UKRI rate in 2021/22)
- Tuition fees at the Home rate*
- Project consumables
*If you are considered an overseas student for fee purposes, you are welcome to apply for this studentship, however you will be required to cover the difference in tuition fees.


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Tata PR, Mou H, Pardo-Saganta A, Zhao R, Prabhu M, Law BM, Vinarsky V, Cho JL, Breton S, Sahay A, Medoff BD, Rajagopal J. Dedifferentiation of committed epithelial cells into stem cells in vivo Nature. 2013 Nov 14;503(7475):218-23.

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