Cellular and Molecular Physiology MPhil/PhD/MD

Major code: CYMR/CYPR/CYMD

About us

The Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology

The Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiologyforms an integral part of the new Institute for Translational Medicine. Building on a long and prestigious history the department remains a leading international centre for research into the fundamental principles of human physiology. In the post genomic era physiology has acquired a new importance as a discipline which provides a valuable link between basic and translational research. In the Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology we have recognised expertise in all aspects of modern physiology ranging from the regulation of gene expression to cell, tissue and whole organism biology. In essence, our research is focused around five key areas of expertise; each of which is related to a complementary area of clinical research or drug development. These include:

(1) Cell physiology, with a focus on intracellular signalling, vesicular transport and the cell cycle;

(2) Systems physiology, including the cancer microenvironment, gastric physiology, stem cell biology and developmental physiology;

(3) Smooth muscle physiology, with research in reproductive physiology, ureteric microvessels, respiratory physiology and disease;

(4) Neuronal signalling, integrating expertise in cell biology, structural biology and the use of model organisms to investigate aging, neurodegeneration and addiction;

(5) Calcium signalling in health and disease, which is currently focused on the role of Ca2+ signalling, mitochondrial function and bioenergeticsin pancreatitis and regulated secretion. In addition, we are also developing new programs in vascular biology, including the therapeutic use of vascular stents and mechanisms of immune and cancer cell invasion. Together these programs provide an exciting and dynamic research environment which benefits from increasing collaboration with clinicians working in cancer research, reproductive medicine, child health and pancreatic research. 

Institute of Translational Medicine

The Institute of Translational Medicine (ITM) (http://www.liv.ac.uk/translational-medicine) comprises the Departments of:

The overarching themes of Translational Medicine are:

  • Basic studies which define the biological effects of therapeutics in humans.
  • Non-human or non-clinical studies conducted with the intent to advance therapies to the clinic or develop principles for application of therapeutics to human disease.
  • Investigations in humans which define the biology of disease and provide the scientific foundation for the development of new or improved therapies for human disease.
  • Any clinical trial of a therapy that was initiated based on the above.
  • The biology-chemistry “bridge”.

Translational medicine is a two-way street from bedside to bench and back again and also from bench to bedside. This is because not all in vitro and in vivo models replicate human disease. It is only possible to translate high quality basic research. Therefore, it is vital that we have integration of clinical, whole animal and in vitro work. This must be underpinned by strong cellular, molecular and bioanalytical technologies alongside clinical networks. The integration of practical research with theoretical advances is being strengthened by advances in Computational and Systems Biology.

A primary aim of the Institute is to provide the necessary infrastructure, facilities, professional support and environment to foster collaborative research between basic science and clinical science postgraduates. The Institute of Translational Medicine will draw on the established expertise within each Department to foster, develop and enhance translational medicine work streams and projects throughout the Institute as a whole. The Institute has close links with the Institute of Learning and Teaching (ILT) and participates in both undergraduate and taught postgraduate teaching including CPDs.

The Institute runs a comprehensive Master in Biomedical Sciences and Translational Medicine (MRes) programme with ten research strands (pathways) covering all it core areas.

  • Biology of Cancer
  • Biomedical Imaging and Biosensing
  • Biostatistics (with Health Informatics)
  • Cancer Medicine
  • Cellular and Molecular Physiology
  • Drug Safety
  • Medical Sciences
  • Molecular and Clinical Gastroenterology
  • Molecular and Clinical Pharmacology
  • Nanomedicine
  • Neuroscience
  • Stem Cells, Tissues and Disease
  • Women’s, Children’s and Perinatal Health

All departments in the Institute of Translational Medicine also offer a comprehensive range of MD, MPhil, and PhD programmes both full time and part time in all their core areas (see for detailed programme codes and how to apply under the individual departments).

Dr Alec Simpson

The Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology has an excellent track record in training postgraduate students. 

What do you consider a postgraduate degree from your department has to offer and benefit a prospective student both within their academic discipline and outside? (For instance, what transferable skills are gained; what knowledge do you consider is applicable to other career paths)?

Our department has an excellent track record research training with a very high success rate.   Within their academic discipline research students gain a broad range of skills relevant to contemporary cell and molecular physiology. We aim to provide training that will allow students to go  on and work in any top laboratory in either academia or industry. In terms of generic skills, we expect students to develop good written and oral communication .   Presenting and discussing data at meetings is an important part of science and our students are given opportunities to develop these skills. We also expect that by the end of their training students can convert good ideas into an appropriate set of experiments and to play a significant role in the preparation of manuscripts. 

Please describe your research interests and any research projects you are involved with.

My own research focuses on aspects of cell signalling. That is to say how a cell interprets external signals derived from either other cells or its environment. When a cell is stimulated there are usually subtle changes in the concentration of Ca2+ within it. This Ca2+ serves to activate many cellular activities depending on the timing, location and magnitude of the Ca2+ change. Thus many diverse processes such as muscle contraction, gene expression, secretion and metabolism  (to name a few) can all be regulated by Ca2+. Paradoxically, if high Ca2+ concentrations persist in a cell this will lead to it dying. Thus, Ca2+ is often implicated in pathologicaI responses. I have an interest in vascular biology as well, and have worked in collaboration with cardiologists and surgeons to improve the viability of vascular grafts used in coronary bypass surgery. I am also interested in how cells generate ATP the molecule that is considered to be the cell’s currency of energy that drives many cellular reactions. Curiously, cells also release ATP and use it as an extracellular signal to communicate with their neighbours.

What do you see as the significance and impact of your research within your own specialism and beyond (potentially to society at large)?  Do you consider your research to be ‘making a difference’ (improving lives, shaping policy, or expanding the boundaries of our knowledge and changing perceptions)? 

I was at the forefront of single cell Ca2+ measurements and was again later involved in the development of a technique to measure mitochondrial Ca2+ at a time when there was little understanding of  their role in Ca2+ homeostasis. Since then there has been a revolution in our understanding of organelle Ca2+  and mitochondria function. These approaches are now widespread and it has become clear that mitochondria are central to  many disease processes. Recently we have carried out work on cyto-protection and ways of improving Ca2+ clearance to limit its’ cytoxic actions. Hopefully this will have widespread utility in terms of helping cell survival under extreme stress that may arise during hypoxia or disease.  Other work on vascular grafts has resulted in surgeons taking much greater care in avoiding temperature shock to graft vessels in the operating theatre.

Who funds or contributes funding to your research – is it a particularly prestigious or renowned organisation or business?  Does your research have commercial potential or application?

Most recently I have been funded by North West Cancer Research Fund, the BBSRC and  by  studentships from Universiti Sains Malaysia  and Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau. Earlier work has been funded by the British Heart Foundation the Wellcome Trust , the MRC and the Royal Society.

Does pursuing your research involve travel to particularly interesting or prominent places?  Does it involve collaboration with particularly interesting or prominent institutions or organisations?

One of the great benefits of being a scientist is to travel to interesting places and meet interesting people. Early in my career I spent a year working in Italy at the historic  University of Padua in Italy. I have maintained links with friends and colleagues there and at nearby Ferrara ever since. I quite often travel to the USA for research conferences and have visited Colorado, Boston Chicago and San Francisco to name a few.  The Gordon Research Conferences are small prestigious meetings where researchers are encouraged to interact both scientifically and socially. These are excellent for seeing the very latest developments in the field. Other meetings such the ASCB are on a phenomenal scale you can be overwhelmed by the number of talks and posters and the size of  the venues.

What skills, qualifications and experience do your students usually have?

This varies considerably, usually a 2(i) degree (or the appropriate international equivalent) in a biological science. Within this broad framework of backgrounds, I have supervised students with a first degree in anatomy, psychology, biotechnology, biomedical sciences as well as medicine.

Is there an academic route that they’ve usually taken before they apply for your programme(s)?

Usually a first degree in a biological science or medicine but we do see more students with Master’s qualifications these days. Graduates  can of course enter through our own MRes in Biomedical Sciences & Translational Medicine/PhD programme.

What qualifications, experience, and any characteristics you seek in prospective postgradaute students?

A   degree  in an appropriate science background is obviously essential, but  determination and an enthusiasm for science are extremely important. A good knowledge of experimental techniques is very helpful, more so if they have been acquired through a Master’s Degree.  However, if students have gained additional laboratory experience through summer work or other work this does help give them an edge.  Developing writing and analytical skills, either before or during a PhD is very important. Projects have their ups and downs and it is crucial that students persevere when faced with challenges. Having good self motivation is an important quality. At the end of the day what a student achieves is directly related to the effort that is put in. 

What do you love most about the University of Liverpool?

Probably the best thing about the University is the students. It is very rewarding to see them develop and achieve success. These days the University is very cosmopolitan, I like the mix of nationalities and cultures.

Why should prospective students study a postgraduate qualification here?

Firstly research training is excellent here and there is a sense of community between the postgraduate students. There are a broad range of projects on offer so prospective students should find projects that interest them.  Liverpool is a fantastic city with great culture that suits all interests. It is  has very good transport links,  with its own airport serving Europe and Manchester International  Airport close by  flying to all continents.