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Funded PhD Opportunity

Development of optically transparent nanofibrous biomaterial scaffolds for ophthalmic tissue engineering

Subject: Engineering


The number of victims requiring specialist treatment for chemical (acid, alkali and corrosive substances) attacks has doubled over the last three years (1). Chemical injury to the conjunctiva and cornea is a true ocular emergency that can result in extensive damage to the ocular surface leading to serious visual impairment and disfigurement (2). A severe shortage of donor cornea to treat these problems is a significant problem in public health and it is essential that substitutes for donor tissue be developed to meet the increasing demand for corneal transplantation. Current attempts in designing biomaterial scaffolds for corneal tissue regeneration involve expensive materials such as human amniotic membrane (2). However, many of these corneal scaffolds lack the highly-organised fibrous structure that functions as a load-bearing component in the native tissue. The main objective of this research is the manufacture of nanofibrous polymeric biomaterials using the versatile electrospinning fabrication process for the treatment of damage to the ocular epithelium. The project will develop a range of biomedical applications which include an understanding and manipulation of the interactions of these materials with their surrounding cells and proteins, and aims to expand the potential for polymeric drug delivery. Current research by the supervisor has developed specific chemical and biological modification techniques that have been used to significantly improve the interactions between electrospun biomaterials and their surrounding biological environment (4).

This PhD project aims to prove that transparent nanofibrous polymeric materials can be employed for successful ophthalmic tissue engineering applications for the treatment of corneal injuries. The project will test materials capable of supporting the growth of limbal stem cells to repopulate the native corneal epithelium.

The research is highly multidisciplinary and will involve collaboration with other scientists in NIBEC and Ulster University. The student will develop and manufacture biomaterials using a combination of synthetic polymers and collagen as scaffold materials with the application of appropriate modifications to promote polymeric transparency and interactions with corneal cells. Physical and chemical characterisation of biomaterials using advanced͞ in-house͟ analytical techniques will be performed before human cell culture and molecular biology techniques will be used to investigate the interaction of the biomaterials with the cells. This study will contribute to a better understanding of the in vitro characteristics of biomaterials as a substratum for the growth of corneal cells, and elucidate the molecular mechanisms by which substrate interactions support cell monolayer formation and maintain the differentiated properties of the cells.


1.Dhastagair, S., Attacks with corrosive substances are increasing in UK. BMJ 2017; 358 (Published 02 August 2017)

2.Wagoner, M.D., Chemical injuries of the eye: current concepts in pathophysiology and therapy. Survey of ophthalmology, 1997. 41(4): p. 275-313.

3.Baum, J., Thygeson lecture. Amniotic membrane transplantation: why is it effective? Cornea, 2002. 21(4): p. 339-41.

4.Sorkio A et al. Surface Modified Biodegradable Electrospun Membranes as a Carrier for Human Embryonic Stem Cell-Derived Retinal Pigment Epithelial Cells. Tissue Eng Part A. 2015 Sep;21(17-18):2301-14.

Essential criteria

  • Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC)


    Vice Chancellors Research Scholarships (VCRS)

    The scholarships will cover tuition fees and a maintenance award of £14,777 per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). Applications are invited from UK, European Union and overseas students.


    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £ 14,777 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fees component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided).  For Non EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK.

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University

Key dates

Submission deadline
Monday 19 February 2018

Interview Date
Mid March 2018

Contact supervisor

Dr George Burke

Other supervisors


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