PhD Scholarship - Design, optimisation, and fabrication of patient-specific multi-phasic total disc replacements to address age-related degenerative disc disease

The University of Queensland (UQ) and the University of Exeter are seeking an exceptional student for this PhD Scholarship: Design, optimisation, and fabrication of patient-specific multi-phasic total disc replacements to address age-related degenerative disc disease​ as part of the QUEX Institute. This joint PhD scholarship provides a fantastic opportunity for a talented doctoral student to work closely with a world class research group and benefit from the combined expertise and facilities offered at the two institutions. The successful applicant will have the chance to study in Australia and the UK, and will graduate with a joint degree from The University of Queensland and the University of Exeter.

In addition to this project, a further six UQ-based projects are available, along with seven Exeter-based projects.


Project details

Design, optimisation, and fabrication of patient-specific multi-phasic total disc replacements to address age-related degenerative disc disease

Project team Project description Preferred academic background


Professor Justin Cooper-White 

Professor Ernst Wolvetang 


Dr Timothy Holsgrove 

Dr Junning Chen


Spinal problems affect over 80% of the population, the majority of which are aged, representing a major and growing social and an economic burden on health services world-wide, currently costing more than 200 billion USD a year. These problems are frequently associated with the degeneration of the intervertebral disc (IVD), a condition that is highly penetrant within our ageing population and severely limits their ability to participate and contribute to society. Unfortunately, treatments have limited success. Spinal fusion is the sixth most common operating procedure in the US (488,000 per year), but the most costly (total $12.8 billion per year). This procedure can provide pain relief, but can cause increased stress on adjacent tissues, leading to a degenerative cascade. Total disc replacement (TDR) provides an alternative, but current devices show little to no improvement in clinical outcomes over the fusion procedures they are designed to supersede. We believe this situation arises because no current TDRs replicate the unique biophysical (mechanical) properties of the IVD. We propose in this PhD project to develop a ‘design, optimisation, and fabrication’ pipeline for patient-specific multi-phasic TDRs that can be tailored to the mechanical environment of a particular patient’s spine, and through this mechanical-matching, support the generation of new tissue from a patient’s own stem cells. Our collaboration provides the broad range of expertise to achieve this urgently required outcome.

This project will build on previous work performed at the University of Queensland on the construction of regenerative multi-component, multi-phasic scaffolds using a novel additive biofabrication methodology, and differentiation of human tissue-derived stem cells into IVD cells, with added expertise at the University of Exeter in multi-axis spinal loading, and biomechanical optimisation techniques using finite element modelling. Supported by these previous achievements and expertise, this project will focus on the development of a “design, fabricate, optimise (DFO)” total disc replacement (TDR) pipeline.

The successful applicant will investigate the design and fabrication of a multi-scale total disc replacement, develop a finite element model, complete topological optimisation of the TDR design using level-set or gradient-based methods, and validate optimisation algorithms and outputs against in-vitro test data. The optimised disc design produced from this project will form the basis of a patient-specific, regenerative total disc replacement, which will be assessed in vitro for its ability to support the differentiation of human mesenchymal stems into the appropriate cellular phenotypes present in the IVD under loads mimicking those experienced by the IVD in humans.

A bachelor’s degree with first class honours or a coursework master’s degree and an overall GPA (grade point average) equivalent to 5.65 on the 7-point UQ scale, which includes a relevant research component.

The successful applicant for this project will enrol through the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at The University of Queensland.

Questions about this project should be directed to Professor Justin Cooper-White


These scholarships include a living stipend of AUD $27,596 (2019) tax free, indexed annually, tuition fees and Overseas Student Health Cover (where applicable). A travel grant of AUD $8,500 per annum, and a training grant of AUD $3,000 are also available over the program.

How to apply

These scholarships attract a large number of applications and are therefore highly competitive. The are several steps involved in the application process, and these are outlined below. Please note this process is for the UQ-based projects. The Exeter-based projects have a different process.

  1. Expression of Interest: To be considered for this program, you must complete an Expression of Interest via the link below.
  2. Shortlisting: The project team will review all Expressions of Interest received. They may contact you at this stage to request more information or to have an informal discussion about your suitability for the project.
  3. Interview: The project team will nominate the two most suitable applicants for each project (or only one if they prefer), and these applicants will be invited to attend a formal interview. As there are seven UQ-based projects, a maximum of 14 applicants will be interviewed.
  4. Invitation to apply: The applicants who were interviewed will be ranked. The top five ranked interviewees will be invited to submit a full application, providing they have applied for five different projects. If two applicants have expressed interest in the same project, the lower ranked applicant of the two will not proceed, and the applicant with the next highest ranking for a different project will be invited to apply instead.
  5. Assessment of application: If you are invited to submit a full application, this is the point at which you will be assessed for eligibility to enter the PhD program. To avoid delays at this point, you should familiarise yourself with the program requirements including evidence of relevant research experience and English language proficiency prior to submitting an Expression of Interest.
  6. Commencement: Successful applicants will commence at The University of Queensland in Research Quarter 1 (January, 2020).

Expressions of interest are open until 20 May, 2019.

Submit an expression of interest

Questions? Contact the Graduate School.