SLMS Academic Careers Office

Grand Challenges

32.  Understanding the neurobiological effects of clinical photochemical internalisation in order to minimise nerve damage during treatment of cancer

Supervisor Pair: Dr James Phillips and Dr Afia B Ali
Potential Student’s Home Department: Biomaterials & Tissue Engineering, UCL Eastman Dental Institute

Photochemical internalisation (PCI) is a novel drug delivery technology being tested in patients with advanced head and neck cancer. Inadequate drug delivery to tumours can be a major limiting factor in treatment efficacy and PCI can improve the delivery of drugs to key target sites and enable the use of lower drug doses with reduced systemic toxicity. There is a clinical need to understand the effects of PCI on nervous system structures and to minimise any damage. Nerve damage is a major side-effect of cancer and cancer treatments, which has serious implications for treatment planning, patient safety and maintenance of function.

This project aims to (1) characterise in detail the effects of PCI on nerve function and (2) identify PCI treatments that spare nerve damage. A comprehensive combination of in vitro and in vivo models will be used to investigate the neurobiological effects of PCI. This will include the use of advanced 3D cell culture techniques which we have developed (Georgiou et al., Biomaterials 34,7335-7343, 2013; Wright et al., Photochem Photobiol 88, 1539–1545, 2012; Wright et al., Br J Cancer 101, 658–665, 2009) in which the sensitivity of specific neural cells to PCI will be established and sub-lethal effects of PCI on neurons will be assessed electrophysiologically within engineered neural tissues.

This multidisciplinary project involves collaboration between UCL scientists and clinicians from Medical Sciences and Life Sciences with complementary expertise in engineered nervous system models (Dr Phillips), electrophysiology (Dr Ali), PCI (Prof MacRobert & Dr Woodhams) and Oral & Maxillofacial surgery (Mr Hopper).

The project will involve learning a range of advanced in vitro and in vivo techniques and working within an exciting interdisciplinary team at the interface between neuroscience and cancer research. The outcomes of the research have the potential to make a significant impact in the treatment of patients with cancer, improving the wellbeing of patients and addressing a key health challenge. Added value with impact beyond this project is the novel combination of electrophysiology and engineered neural tissue models, providing a powerful new platform technology for testing other minimally invasive cancer therapies and for use more widely in neuroscience research.