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Virus infection triggers a multitude of immune responses. Detection of virus presence by the innate immune system is a crucial event mediated by germ-line encoded receptors inside cells. These sensors of virus presence signal for the induction of innate immune response genes, such as those encoding type I interferons. Many of these receptors sense viral nucleic acids. For example, RIG-I recognizes the RNA genomes of viruses such as influenza A virus (Rehwinkel et al., Cell 2010). Viruses in turn have developed strategies to counteract and evade detection by innate immune receptors. As such, cells and viruses are in a dynamic arms race in which host defence mechanisms and viral counter-measures rapidly co-evolve. One of our aims is to understand the molecular basis of host pathogen interactions.

This project will address these questions in the context of Zika virus, which is a major public health concern in the Americas where ZIKV infection has been linked with neurological conditions, including microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Little is known about innate immune responses to ZIKV. Our unpublished observations suggest that ZIKV infection induces a type I interferon response via RIG-I-like receptors. Furthermore, we found that ZIKV interferes with this response by multiple mechanisms, including blockade of RIG-I activation and inhibition of signalling downstream of the type I interferon receptor.

The successful candidate will extend these studies by investigating the molecular mechanisms underlying these observations. In particular, we will (i) identify the types of RNAs that activate RIG-I-like receptors in Zika virus infected cells, (ii) investigate which Zika virus proteins block RIG-I signalling and (iii) analyse how these host-virus interactions shape the outcome of infection using mutant viruses and in vivo models. The project has basic and translational research components. Taken together, this exciting project builds on strong preliminary results and may lead to a better understanding of the immune response to Zika virus.

 Training Opportunities

Based in the MRC Human Immunology Unit at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, with access to state-of-the-art facilities, this project provides an opportunity for training in a broad range of different techniques, including cell culture, molecular biology, immunology, virology and mouse models. This project will additionally benefit from close collaboration with many scientists. The successful candidate will be supervised by Jan Rehwinkel and additional day-to-day supervision will be provided by an experienced member of the Rehwinkel lab.

As well as the specific training detailed above, students will have access to a wide-range of seminars and training opportunities through the many research institutes and centres based in Oxford. Students are also able to attend the Methods and Techniques course run by the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. This course runs through the year, ensuring that students have the opportunity to build a broad-based understanding of differing research techniques.

Generic skills training is offered through the Medical Sciences Division's Skills Training Programme. This programme offers a comprehensive range of courses covering many important areas of researcher development: knowledge and intellectual abilities, personal effectiveness, research governance and organisation, and engagement, influence and impact. Students are actively encouraged to take advantage of the training opportunities available to them.

The department has a successful mentoring scheme, open to graduate students, which provides an additional possible channel for personal and professional development outside the regular supervisory framework. We hold an Athena SWAN Silver Award in recognition of our efforts to support the careers of female students and staff.

Research Themes, Tools and Technologies

Supervisors

Key Dates for October 2018 Entry

Application deadline:  12 noon GMT on Monday 8 January 2018

Interviews for shortlisted candidates: Week commencing Monday 22 January 

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How to apply

To apply for a place on the DPhil in Medical Sciences you will need to submit an application using the online application form.

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