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Graduate Studentships

MRC Cancer Unit - PhD Opportunities, 2019

The Medical Research Council Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge is a leading centre for cancer research in the UK.  Our aim is to undertake research that advances our understanding of the earliest steps in the emergence of cancer, and to use this knowledge for early diagnosis, risk stratification and clinical intervention, through the development of innovative enabling technologies.  The Unit is based within the Hutchison/MRC Research Centre on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, and possesses excellent research facilities, strong collaborations with clinicians and colleagues in other disciplines, and a vibrant and supportive working environment.

We have the following PhD projects on offer for entry in October 2019, with funding available through studentships from the Medical Research Council.  Eligibility and Funding criteria apply and are stated below.


Characterization of the mutational progression in gastrointestinal adenocarcinomas – Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald

Oesophageal Adenocarcinoma (OAC) is a poor prognosis cancer characterized by a high mutation burden and many large scale chromosomal rearrangements (structural variants). It is not clear how mutations in regulatory regions and structural variants effect chromatin organization and genome integrity. Characterizing these changes can help us in understanding molecular events that causes transformation. We have recently identified non-coding driver mutations in OAC but a poor understanding of OAC genome structure has limited both their detection and interpretation. This PhD project is an opportunity to work in a highly translational, multidisciplinary team to analyse whole genome sequencing, RNA sequencing data combined with wet lab experiments using innovative Hi-C techniques in 2D and 3D cell lines (organoids) to capture changes in both normal and cancer cases and investigate their functional relevance.  Close postdoctoral support is available for day to day supervision combined with opportunities to learn computational and wet lab biology skills.

More information about the research undertaken in the Fitzgerald Lab can be found here:


Defining mechanisms of immune dysfunction in the tumour microenvironment  Dr. Jacqueline Shields

Although tumours frequently contain immune infiltrates, our immune system is often unable to mount an effective anti-tumour response where immune populations promote disease progression and metastasis rather than eliminating disease. Despite these observations, the mechanisms employed by a growing tumour to avoid immune destruction remain unclear. However, recent evidence indicates that non-cancerous support cells within tumours, referred to as the stroma, may play a critical role. The Shields group aims to determine how and when the stroma is able to orchestrate immune dysfunction during tumour evolution from the earliest stages of carcinogenesis, both in the local microenvironment and downstream lymph nodes. This project will take an innovative approach that integrates immunology concepts, novel in vitro systems, state-of-the-art imaging techniques and complementary in vivo tumour models. Our long-term goal is to translate this knowledge into targeted therapeutic platforms capable of restoring the anti-tumour response.

More information about the research undertaken in the Shields lab can be found here-


Transcriptional control of metastatic cancer progression – Dr Sakari Vanharanta

The majority of cancer-related deaths result from the metastatic spread of cancer to secondary organs. Even though a multitude of metastasis driver genes have been identified, in most cases metastatic cancer remains incurable. Thus, there is a critical need for a better understanding of genetic cancer cell dependencies. Our multi-disciplinary approach combines functional genetics, experimental metastasis models, clinical association analysis, high-throughput genomics and bioinformatics in order to identify genetic regulators of metastatic cell states. The long-term goal is to translate this knowledge into novel prognostic and treatment modalities for metastatic cancer. Using clear cell renal cell carcinoma as a model, the goal of this PhD project is to identify and characterize molecular dependencies in metastatic cancer clones.

More information about the research undertaken in the Vanharanta lab can be found here:


Eligibility and Funding

We welcome applications from those holding, or expecting to obtain at least an upper second class degree (or equivalent) in a relevant scientific subject.  These studentships are funded by the Medical Research Council and are open to UK and EU applicants only.  Other international students are not eligible to apply.  UK applicants will be eligible to receive full funding of University and College fees and a stipend of £18,000 p.a. EU applicants will be funded on a fees-only basis, unless they meet the MRC's eligibility criteria (visit the MRC website for further details:  Successful applicants will be registered with the University of Cambridge.


How to apply

All applications will need to be made through the University Application Portal and will entail an application fee of £60.  Please visit: for further information about the programme and to access the Applicant Portal.  Please note that the course code for PhD applications to the MRC Cancer Unit is MDCU22.  Whilst making your online application please make it clear which project area(s) and principal investigator(s) you are interested in working with.  Your online application will need to include:


  • A CV, including full details of all University course grades to date.
  • Contact details for two academic or professional referees.
  • A personal statement outlining your interest in a specific project area, what you hope to achieve from a PhD, and your research experience to date.


The above information must be provided under relevant sections on the application portal.

Completing the Research section

In the ‘Research Title’ textbox, if you are applying for one project only, insert the project title.  If you wish to apply for more than one project, insert ‘Cancer research’.

If you are applying for consideration by more than one supervisor, in the Research Summary textbox, please insert the project title(s) being offered by the Supervisor(s) you wish to consider your application.

In the ‘Research Supervisor’ textbox, please insert the initials of the Supervisor(s) you wish to consider your application.

Please also describe your research experience in the appropriate textbox.

The closing date for applications is 30th November 2018, with interviews expected to take place in December.

Please contact with any other enquiries concerning studentships or eligibility criteria.


Information about the GATES International and other Graduate Funding competitions  open to international students (administered by the Cambridge Trust) is available on the respective websites. 

Should you be interested in working with any of our groups, please contact the group leader concerned via email to discuss suitable projects and funding options.