Investigating the role of neutrophil-mediated tissue damage in a model of lupus nephritis


Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a rare autoimmune disease that affects around 5 million people worldwide. It disproportionately affects women and is incurable. SLE is a multimorbid disease, with renal damage (lupus nephritis), cardiovascular disease, arthritis and mental health issues affecting around 78% of people with SLE. Even with modern treatment it is still associated with an increased risk of shortened life expectancy. SLE is characterised by the production of multiple auto-antibodies (e.g. anti-nuclear antibodies, anti-double stranded DNA antibodies) alongside chronic, systemic inflammation. Neutrophils are innate immune cells involved in chronic inflammation and production of neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) that expose auto-antigens (e.g. DNA, histones) leading to production of auto-antibodies. We hypothesise that neutrophil activation products including reactive oxygen species (ROS) and proteases (such as elastase and collagenase), along with auto-antibodies that bind to NETs, induce tissue damage in the kidney glomeruli of people with SLE.


The objectives of the project are to define the role of neutrophils and neutrophil products (ROS, proteases, NETs) in tissue damage in SLE and identify therapeutic inhibitors of neutrophil activation and neutrophil-mediated tissue damage.


Activated neutrophils are an exciting new therapeutic target to block tissue damage in auto-immune diseases. The primary supervisor has active grants which have identified small molecule kinase inhibitors to block NET production and the secondary supervisor has extensive experience in protease biology. The third supervisor who has extensive experience in developing in vitro organoid models will lead development of the in vitro organoid model of the lupus kidney.


SLE is a serious life-limiting disease with very few treatment options. The primary supervisor is leading a program of discovery research to identify novel therapies to target unwanted neutrophil activation in auto-immune disease. The primary supervisor has an established collaboration with a connective tissue disease consultant in Liverpool who can source neutrophils from people with SLE.

Experimental Approach

We will develop an in vitro model of SLE using co-cultures of neutrophils, neutrophil degranulation products, NET debris and serum (healthy and SLE) with endothelial (HUVEC) and epithelial (podocytes) cells in 2D and 3D organoids. We will use a range of cell-based assays to measure protease and cytokine production, cell viability, proliferation and collagen degradation. We will repeat these experiments in the presence of chemical inhibitors of NET production and neutrophil proteases (e.g. MMP inhibitors, serine protease inhibitors) in order to identify potential novel therapies for the treatment of SLE.


To apply: please send your CV and a covering letter to Dr Helen Wright


Open to students worldwide

Funding information

Self-funded project

The successful applicant will be expected to provide the funding for tuition fees, living expenses, and attendance at conferences. A research bench fee of £10,000 p.a. will be levied as a contribution to laboratory consumables and research facility access. There is NO institutional funding attached to this project. Details of costs can be found on the University website.



  1. Fresneda Alarcon M, McLaren Z, Wright HL*. Neutrophils in the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus: same foe different M.O. Frontiers in immunology 2021 12:649693. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2021.649693
  2. Chapman E, Lyon M, Simpson DM, Mason DN, Beynon RJ, Moots RJ, Wright HL*. Caught in a Trap? Proteomics analysis of neutrophil extracellular traps in rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus. Frontiers in Immunology 2019 10:423
  3. Wilkinson DJ, Falconer AMD, Wright HL, Lin H, Yamamoto K, Cheung K, Charlton SH, del Carmen Arques M, Janciauskiene S, Refaie R, Rankin KS, Young DA, Rowan AD. Matrix metalloproteinase-13 is fully activated by neutrophil elastase, and inactivates its serpin inhibitor, alpha-1 antitrypsin: Implications for osteoarthritis.