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Peptide hydrogels as a long-acting multipurpose drug delivery platform for combined contraception and HIV prevention

School of Pharmacy | PHD
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Application Deadline
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Start Date
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HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death in women of reproductive age worldwide. HIV and unintended pregnancies are prevalent in developing nations due to the lack of effective female contraceptive choice. HIV/AIDs remains one of the key challenges facing the UK (428 deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in 2017) and our rate of unintended pregnancies are the highest in Western Europe (one in six pregnancies). One of the key issues is that patients struggle to adhere to the complex regimens of HIV and contraceptive therapies, which often require multiple dosing at very specific times each day. Recent strategies have focused on solving patient adherence issues by using long-acting injectable technologies. However, such products have several significant issues that limit their wider use as combined HIV and contraceptive therapies, such as: -the use of water-insoluble drugs that limit the type of drugs that can be incorporated into the product meaning a dual HIV-contraceptive technology is difficult to achieve -fast drug release after insertion leading to potential toxicity issues/concerns over dose received -a need for surgery for implant insertion and removal -a requirement for large needles -stability issues upon storage/transport to the developing world which can result in clogging of syringes and incomplete dosing of drugs.

Our project aims to overcome these issues by creating a soluble injection of enhanced stability, for improved ease of administration under the skin. This will form a hydrogel implant in response to enzymes present within the skin to release drugs long-term, removing the need for daily dosing. Our injectable implant is composed of peptide-like molecules which are capable of forming tissue-like hydrogels that can be tailored to gradually release drugs for at least 28 days. This will remove the need for patients to comply with complex drug dosing regimens on a daily basis and improve their adherence to medication. Natural peptides form the building blocks of proteins and tissues. Their use as a drug releasing hydrogel implant for administration under the skin is promising due to their high biocompatibility, but limited by their rapid degradation within hours by enzymes present in the human body. This project overcomes stability issues by studying peptide-mimetics, which retain the positive properties of peptides (e.g. biocompatibility, easy drug attachment) with the ability to form hydrogels that will be stable for the duration of therapy. Peptide-mimetics can be tailored to degrade within the body over months into non-toxic components that are eliminated from the patient, meaning surgical removal is not necessary.

Our peptide-mimetics possess high chemical versatility (i.e. wide choice of chemical functional groups). Therefore multiple drugs can be attached directly to the peptide-mimetic hydrogel enabling large quantities of drug to be incorporated to meet in vivo therapeutic need for at least 28 days. Drug detachment proceeds in physiological conditions after the hydrogel forms reducing potential for rapid burst release of drug upon injection. Drug release studies will assess the potential for sustained drug administration in a bid to minimise pharmacokinetic peaks and troughs in drug concentrations. The peptide-mimetics studied in this project are purposefully small molecules that are cheap to manufacture, improving their potential to be clinically translated as a pharmaceutical product and effectively utilised within healthcare budgets for patient and societal benefit.
The data obtained will allow the practical utility of this peptide-mimetic hydrogel approach to long-acting injectable administration of drugs to be assessed. This platform has high potential to be adopted as a novel implant for the sustained delivery of drugs for conditions where patients have difficulty adhering to their medicines (e.g. Alzheimer’s, tuberculosis, depression, schizophrenia, malaria).
This research will be conducted at the School of Pharmacy Queen's University Belfast which was ranked 2nd in the UK for Pharmacy and Pharmacology according to the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020, underpinning the school's investment in and commitment to world-class facilities and staff, with internationally leading research programmes. The School of Pharmacy Queen’s University Belfast was particularly outstanding ranking as first amongst Pharmacy submissions in REF 2014. The School of Pharmacy is a leading UK centre for pharmaceutical research and has been supported by philanthropic donations of more than £7 million for strategic research developments. The School's research strategy has focused on developing high profile projects, including in cancer and dermatological therapies that ultimately have the potential to meet identified clinical needs and, consequently, also have high priority status with the pharmaceutical industry. As a member of the Russell Group, Queen's University Belfast which is consistently recognised as one of the leading universities for knowledge exchange in the UK, thus ensuring research is creating jobs, wealth, skills and innovation. The projects lead investigator Dr Laverty is a PhD graduate from the School of Pharmacy and has first-hand knowledge experience of the successful pathway a PhD from Queens University Belfast can provide. The Postgraduate Research Committee (PGRC) advises and supports all PGR students, ensures appropriate training is provided, considers all matters relating to recruitment, admission, progress and examination for postgraduate degrees, monitors and reviews supervision, appoints external examiners, reviews complaints, refers student appeals to the University Postgraduate Appeals Committee and also submits an annual report to the University Postgraduate Office. The School of Pharmacy expects monthly meetings with students where electronic records must be kept. Students must also complete a three-month initial review and annual progress review to proceed to years two and three. The annual progress review involves written work, presentation and/or mini viva. These are the standard management and monitoring arrangements that must be adhered to by the academic partners. As such the School of Pharmacy has the best PhD completion rates within Queen's University Belfast. Each PhD student must also complete the centrally organised Queen's University Belfast researcher development framework program consisting of 30 days of training. These have been created by vitae, and endorsed by the QAA and Research Councils UK. The training areas include four domains that encompass: (A) knowledge and intellectual abilities, (B) personal effectiveness, (C) research governance and organisation and (D) engagement influence and impact. For this studentship the student will be trained in the following generic skills; developing writing skills, developing presentation skills, power point for academic presentations and posters, communication skills, introduction to research design, academic plagiarism, basic and advanced statistics, networking and negotiating, lab demonstrating and introduction to ref works. Students are also encouraged to use the Personal Development Planning (PDP) process to build a portfolio on learning, performance and achievement. PDP encourages the students to adopt a good work practice and supports the timely submission of thesis. The student will receive formal training in the following specialist skills necessary for this project; peptide synthesis, drug release protocols, confocal microscopy, scanning and transmission electron microscopy, tissue culture, HPLC, Fourier Transform infra-red spectrometry, circular dichroism, Mass Spectroscopy, NMR, and in vivo facilities. The combination of these skills is highly transferable and should give the student a distinct advantage in the employment sector.
Healthcare Professionals– This project will result in a novel drug delivery system that will serve as a superior alternative to existing formulations for healthcare professionals involved in supplying HIV antimicrobials and contraceptives. The student will engage with the Belfast Health Trust’s HIV Service and individual consultants/physicians, providing knowledge input relating to clinical experimental design and result interpretation. We recognise it is important to instil healthcare practitioner confidence in the technology and obtain their feedback early in development.
Patients– The student will also engage with HIV charities to provide stakeholder engagement activities (patient questionnaires, focus groups). We will explore: patient related factors in HIV; in-depth views on experiences and gauge their opinion on current treatments and our peptide-based platform.
-Involved in development of intellectual property
-Attendance at relevant conferences
-Engagement with industry
-Generation of publications

Project Summary
Dr Garry Laverty
Mode of Study

Full-time: 3 Years

Apply now Register your interest

Pharmacy overview

The School of Pharmacy focuses its research activities on key areas of the pharmaceutical sciences and clinical and primary care aspects of pharmacy. Our research spans a wide range of scientific and professional disciplines. It is characterised by being multidisciplinary, internationally-connected and, ultimately, relevant to patients.

The School achieved an excellent result in REF 2014, we have 92% of our research falling within the highest quality 4* and 3* categories. We are now one of the leading centres for pharmaceutical research in the UK. The School is also committed to research excellence. This is achieved through continual review of research standards, strategic recruitment and development of external and internal collaborations. The School has a a broad portfolio of high quality research income and School staff publish widely in leading journals and present their work at national and international conferences.

Our research focuses on making real-world improvements for patients through our expertise in pharmaceutical science and practice and is grouped into 5 themes with associated areas of activity which are mainly funded by UK and European Government sources, leading medical charities and the pharmaceutical industry.


This area looks at the development of novel technologies and targeted therapies for advanced healthcare solutions including anticancer therapeutics, nano delivery of macromolecules; proteases in disease and natural peptides.


This activity centres around the design, development and industrial translation of novel systems for patient-focused administration of difficult-to-deliver drugs including; HIV prevention and multipurpose prevention technologies; solid dosage forms and microneedles.


The area looks at the development of materials which interface with the body and provide enhanced functionality, such as drug delivery, infection resistance or monitoring of levels of drug or host markers in 3 main areas, Photoactive Biomaterials, Polymeric Medical Devices and Sensor Development.


This comprises basic and clinical research to improve the prevention, detection and treatment of infection, in particular Respiratory Infectious Diseases, Antimicrobial Stewardship and Novel Antimicrobials and Anti-Infective Biomaterials


This area encompasses the development and implementation of interventions that improve the health outcomes of patients in primary and secondary care including Systems of Healthcare Delivery; Quality of Care in Vulnerable Populations and Clinical Paediatrics

Pharmacy Highlights
World Class Facilities
Internationally Renowned Experts
Student Experience
  • 94% of current PhD students agree that the School of Pharmacy equips them with the necessary skills and experience to complete their research degree (PRES 2019).
Key Facts

Research students are encouraged to play a full and active role in relation to the wide range of research activities undertaken within the School and there are many resources available including:

  • Access to the Queen's University Postgraduate Researcher Development Programme
  • Office accommodation with access to computing facilities and support to attend conferences for full-time PhD students
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Information on the implications of Brexit for prospective students.

Course content

Research Information

Associated Research
School of Pharmacy works closely with both local and global pharmaceutical companies. This ensures a successful pipeline for the development of novel emerging healthcare technologies, designed specifically to deliver patient benefit.

Research Themes

Research in this theme is focused on the development of novel technologies and targeted therapies for advanced healthcare solutions. Activities are concentrated on the development of unique genetic therapies and delivery systems that can be applied for the detection and treatment of cancer, the development of novel strategies for the detection, characterisation and inhibition of proteases implicated in chronic diseases, the isolation and characterisation of bioactive peptides for potential therapeutic use and computational biology for drug design and molecular modelling.

Research Themes

Research in this theme is focused on the design, development and industrial translation of novel systems for patient-focused administration of difficult-to-deliver drugs. Activities are concentrated on the development of formulations to address major global issues around sexual and reproductive health, use of hot melt granulation and polymer extrusion/injection moulding technologies to produce solid dosage forms, multi-layered and targeted drug delivery systems, the use microneedles for transdermal drug delivery, patient monitoring and vaccine delivery, implantable delivery systems and ocular therapeutics.

Research Themes

Research in this theme is focused on the development of materials which interface with the body and provide enhanced functionality, such as drug delivery, infection resistance or monitoring of levels of drug or host markers. Activities are concentrated on the development of new methods for fabricating materials for medical device manufacture including biomaterials with enhanced anti-infective and biocompatibility properties. Sensor research focuses on sensors immobilised in biocompatible scaffolds, blood-free diagnosis/patient monitoring using microneedles and developing point-of-care tests for microbial infection.

Research Themes
Research in this theme is focused on improved prevention, detection and treatment of infection. Activities are concentrated on preventing the development of antimicrobial resistance through improved antimicrobial stewardship, improved detection of infection using molecular and sensor based technology, prevention of infection using novel anti-infective biomaterials and enhanced infection prevention and control strategies and improved treatment of infection through discovery of novel antibiotics and antibiotic adjuvants and markers for better evidence-based decisions on antibiotic selection.

Research Themes
Research in this theme is focused on the development and implementation of interventions that improve the health outcomes of patients in primary and secondary care. Activities are concentrated on improving systems of patient care in all health care sectors with a focus on the appropriateness of prescribing in chronic disease and in care home residents with dementia, and medication adherence in children.

PhD Opportunities
The School of Pharmacy at Queen’s is acknowledged as a leading centre for Pharmacy teaching and research in the UK. We are currently ranked the #1 School of Pharmacy in the UK for Pharmacy and Pharmacology Research
(Times and Sunday Times good university guide 2019)

PhD opportunities are available in:
•Nanomedicine and biotherapeutics
•Pharmaceutical materials science and formulation
•Drug delivery and biomaterials
•Infection and antimicrobial resistance
•Healthcare delivery and medicines optimisation

Research Impact
Our research focuses on making real-world improvements for patients through our expertise in pharmaceutical science and practice. REF 2014 showed that 92% of the School’s submitted research fell within the highest quality 4* and 3* categories, with 44% classed as world-leading 4* research.
The School of Pharmacy has a long-standing track record in undertaking research which has had impact on healthcare and wellbeing for the population. Our work has led to the development of a local anaesthetic cream formulation, the creation of spin-out companies, devices to help prevent the spread of HIV and a new type of pharmacy-led service which improves the prescribing of medication for older people. We constantly strive to do research which will have applications in society and improve the delivery of health care. One example of our high impact research includes the BREATH project led by Professor Lorraine Martin.

Research Projects
Materials & Advanced Technologies for Healthcare (MATCH) is an interdisciplinary research initiative comprising leading researchers from the Schools of Pharmacy, Chemistry & Chemical Engineering, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Biological Sciences, Medicine, Dentistry & Biomedical Sciences and Nursing & Midwifery.

Our research is centred on the key question: “How can we use advanced technologies to significantly improve healthcare outcomes?” We connect researchers along the development pathway and follow a unique “Molecule to Patient” approach. Currently, single-stranded strategies are applied to development and use of new healthcare products. Without a holistic approach, medicines are wasted, patients suffer avoidable adverse effects, or go untreated. Greater interaction between those involved in identifying novel therapeutic targets, drug discovery, materials science, pharmaceutical formulation, manufacture, diagnosis, prescribing and medicines utilisation is a significant unmet need. If addressed, this stands to have major impact in the care of all patients, but especially the very young and old, representing the populations in which medicines may present the greatest risk, but have maximum benefit. We take an innovative dual approach, firstly by developing the underpinning technologies, secondly by exploiting the possibilities that these technologies present to maximum clinical and commercial advantage by selecting the best target areas and understanding patient factors.

Research Success
The research profile produced by the 2014 UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) showed that 92% of the School’s submitted research fell within the highest quality 4* and 3* categories, with 44% classed as world-leading 4* research, confirming the School's reputation as an internationally-leading research centre. Excellence across the School of Pharmacy is evidenced by our consistent ranking as one of the top pharmacy schools within the UK. Globally we are rated within the top 100 Schools of Pharmacy.

Current PGR Student Profiles
PhD Title: Metabolism supressing gold nanoparticles: A means of sensiting hypoxic head and neck cancers to radiotherapy.
Years of Study: 2018 - present

Career Prospects

Many of our PhD graduates have moved into academic and research roles in Higher Education while others go on to play leading roles within the pharmaceutical industry. Queen's postgraduates reap exceptional benefits. Unique initiatives, such as Degree Plus and Researcher Plus bolster our commitment to employability.

Employment after the Course
Queen’s University offer extensive career development opportunities to PhD students. Further details can be accessed via the link below.

People teaching you

Dr Jonathan Coulter
Director of Postgraduate Research
School of Pharmacy

Learning Outcomes

A research degree offers students an opportunity to develop their capacity for independent research and critical thought. A PhD allows students to explore in-depth an area of interest, developing skills to solve theoretical and practical problems within the field. Undertaking a research degree will enhance a student’s written and oral communication skills, providing the essential skills required for academic and industry leadership positions.

Course structure

There is no specific course content as such. You are expected to undertake 30 days of formal training which includes demonstrator training, laboratory techniques, annual progress review preparation etc... All students are closely supported by the school to obtain quantitative and qualitative data using a range of research methods. You will be expected to carry out your own research under the guidance of your supervisor and postdoctoral team.

Over the course of study you can attend postgraduate skills training organised by the Graduate School.

You will normally register, in the first instance, as an ‘undifferentiated PhD student’ which means that you have satisfied staff that you are capable of undertaking a research degree. The decision as to whether you should undertake an MPhil or a PhD is delayed until you have completed ‘differentiation’.

Differentiation takes place about 9-12 months after registration for full time students and about 18-30 months for part time students: You are normally asked to submit work to a panel of up two academics and this is followed up with a formal meeting with the ‘Differentiation Panel’. The Panel then make a decision regarding your progress and the viability of your research project. Annual progress reviews, with the same panel will occur both during 2nd and 3rd year.

To complete a doctoral qualification you will be required to submit a thesis and to attend a viva voce [oral examination] with an external and internal examiner to defend your research.

A PhD programme runs for 3 years full-time or 6 years part-time. Students can apply for a writing up year should it be required.

The PhD is open to both full and part time candidates and is often a useful preparation for a career within academia or industry.

Full time students are often attracted to research degree programmes because they offer an opportunity to pursue in some depth an area of academic interest.

If you meet the Entry Requirements, the next step is to check whether we can supervise research in your chosen area. We only take students to whom we can offer expert research supervision from one of our academic staff. Therefore, your research interests should align with those of our academic staff. Full details can be found via the website.

Application Process
If you identify a potential PhD supervisor, select the “Make a PhD enquiry” tab, and complete the required fields. Your potential supervisor or the admissions team will aim to respond within a working week.

Following initial discussions, and assuming you meet the eligibility criteria, potential students will need to make a formal application for PhD study via the link below. This application will require a brief outline of the proposed research project. This can be agreed with your potential supervisor during initial discussions.

If you have difficulty identifying or contacting an appropriate supervisor, please contact Dr Jonathan Coulter ( or Lee-Anne Howell ( who will be happy to help.

Application from full-time self-funding students will be accepted at any point throughout the academic year.

Scholarship awards: Funded PhD positions (UK and EU students) will be advertised via the School of Pharmacy website, typically around November, with interviews held during January/February.
International students are eligible to apply for a range of scholarships, full details of which including closing dates can be found below. Prospective international students should also discuss scholarship options with potential PhD supervisors.


Students will be expected to present drafts of their work at regular intervals to their supervisor who will provide written and oral feedback; a formal assessment process takes place annually, termed the Annual Progress Review (APR).

APR requires students to present their work in both the written and oral format to a panel of academics from within the School. Successful completion of this process will allow students to register for the next academic year.

The final assessment of the doctoral degree is both written and oral. Students will submit their thesis to an internal and external examining team who will review the written thesis before inviting the student to orally defend their work at a Viva Voce.


Supervisors will offer feedback on draft work at regular intervals throughout the period of registration on the degree.

Full time PhD students will have access to a shared office space and access to a desk with personal computer and internet access.

Entrance requirements

The minimum academic requirement for admission to a research degree programme is normally an Upper Second Class Honours degree from a UK or ROI HE provider, or an equivalent qualification acceptable to the University.

International Students

For information on international qualification equivalents, please check the specific information for your country.

English Language Requirements

Evidence of an IELTS* score of 6.0, with not less than 5.5 in any component, or an equivalent qualification acceptable to the University is required. *Taken within the last 2 years.

International students wishing to apply to Queen's University Belfast (and for whom English is not their first language), must be able to demonstrate their proficiency in English in order to benefit fully from their course of study or research. Non-EEA nationals must also satisfy UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) immigration requirements for English language for visa purposes.

For more information on English Language requirements for EEA and non-EEA nationals see:

If you need to improve your English language skills before you enter this degree programme, INTO Queen's University Belfast offers a range of English language courses. These intensive and flexible courses are designed to improve your English ability for admission to this degree.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will be offering Academic English and Pre-sessional courses online only from June to September 2020.

  • Academic English: an intensive English language and study skills course for successful university study at degree level
  • Pre-sessional English: a short intensive academic English course for students starting a degree programme at Queen's University Belfast and who need to improve their English.

Tuition Fees

Northern Ireland (NI) £4,407
England, Scotland or Wales (GB) £4,407
Other (non-UK) EU £4,407
International £21,300

More information on postgraduate tuition fees.

Pharmacy costs

There are no specific additional course costs associated with this programme.

Additional course costs

All Students

Depending on the programme of study, there may also be other extra costs which are not covered by tuition fees, which students will need to consider when planning their studies . Students can borrow books and access online learning resources from any Queen's library. If students wish to purchase recommended texts, rather than borrow them from the University Library, prices per text can range from £30 to £100. Students should also budget between £30 to £100 per year for photocopying, memory sticks and printing charges. Students may wish to consider purchasing an electronic device; costs will vary depending on the specification of the model chosen. There are also additional charges for graduation ceremonies, and library fines. In undertaking a research project students may incur costs associated with transport and/or materials, and there will also be additional costs for printing and binding the thesis. There may also be individually tailored research project expenses and students should consult directly with the School for further information.

How do I fund my study?
1.PhD Opportunities

Find PhD opportunities and funded studentships by subject area.

2.Doctoral Training Centres at Queen's

Queen's has eight outstanding competitive Doctoral Training Centres, with each one providing funding for a number of PhD positions and most importantly a hub for carrying out world class research in key disciplines.

3.PhD loans

The Government offers doctoral loans of up to £26,445 for PhDs and equivalent postgraduate research programmes for English- or Welsh-resident UK and EU students, £10,000 for students in Scotland and up to £5,500 for Northern Ireland students.

4.International Scholarships

Information on Postgraduate Research scholarships for international students.

Funding and Scholarships

The Funding & Scholarship Finder helps prospective and current students find funding to help cover costs towards a whole range of study related expenses.

How to Apply

Apply using our online Postgraduate Applications Portal and follow the step-by-step instructions on how to apply.

Find a supervisor

If you're interested in a particular project, we suggest you contact the relevant academic before you apply, to introduce yourself and ask questions.

To find a potential supervisor aligned with your area of interest, or if you are unsure of who to contact, look through the staff profiles linked here.

You might be asked to provide a short outline of your proposal to help us identify potential supervisors.