Centre for Reproductive Health

Saunders group

Mechanisms responsible for sex steroids 'master regulators' of health impacts on repair, regeneration and cell replication in both healthy and diseased reproductive and other tissues

Professor Philippa Saunders

Chair of Reproductive Steroids

  • Centre for Reproductive Health

Contact details

Group Members

  • Alvile  Kasarinaite - PhD student MRC DTP in Precision Medicine (primary supervisor David Hay, CRM)

  • Phoebe Kirkwood - MRC Transition Fellowship 2018-2019
  • Isaac Shaw - Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Team News:

In July 2020 Dr Douglas Gibson was awarded a prestigious Sir Henry Dale Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust - his proposal was entitled 'Defining the impact of androgens on macrophage function during endometrial tissue repair'. The quality of his proposal was additionally recognised by the award of the Wellcome-Beit Prize which is awarded annually to the best intermediate Fellowship proposal. Doug has now set up his own independent group within CIR.

In September 2021 two new PhD projects will be starting focused on endometriosis patients and their pain experience. These projects will be co-supervised by Professor Andrew Horne (Reproductive Health) and will be undertaken with support from members of the Edinburgh EXPPECT Centre and with funding from donors including West Lothian Endo Warriors.

Edinburgh EXPPECT Centre

West Lothian Endo Warriors Facebook page

Project 1. New insights into longitudinal endometriosis symptom trajectories using patient-reported outcome measures and wearable technology [Primary Supervisor Thanasis Tsanas Usher]

Project 2.  The impact of diet on pain in women with endometriosis.  This project will be undertaken as part of the PhD with integrated study in Public Engagement for Impact and involves collaboration with experts in Cork, Ireland and Imperial, London.


Sex steroids are master regulators of health in men and women. Sites of synthesis vary across the life course with the gonads (testis, ovaries) being the major site of synthesis after puberty. In older individual’s synthesis by the adrenals and peripheral tissues such as fat become more important.  Steroids can regulate tissue function by binding to receptors that function as ligand activated transcription factors within the nucleus and cell-specific effects are fine tuned by recruitment of a 'cocktail' of co-factors.  Steroid receptors, including those that recognise oestrogens, may also participate in membrane-initiated steroid signaling (MISS) pathways which are typically rapid and thought to be important for vascular function.  Sex steroids have both direct and indirect effects on immune cells and inflammatory processes and can contribute to differences in response to infection or tissue damage in men and women.

Research Overview

Reproductive tissues in both men and women display remarkable properties of resilience and repair – steroids play a critical regulatory role.  During each non-pregnant menstrual cycle the endometrial tissue within the womb proliferates, differentiates and is shed at menses [See summary figure].  Menstruation is characterised as an inflammatory event characterised by increased numbers of immune cells and a 'perfect storm' of cytokines and prostaglandins. Remarkably, repair of the surface 'wound' is both rapid and scarless; this is followed by rapid regeneration of stromal and epithelial compartments accompanied by active angiogenesis.  We have developed a mouse model of endometrial wound healing that mimics the events during the human menstrual cycle. The results from our recent studies have revealed dynamic changes in the phenotype and location of neutrophils and monocytes/macrophages as well as evidence for mesenchymal-epithelial transition (MET).

Women's health disorders including heavy periods, endometrial cancer and endometriosis all have their origins in endometrial malfunction. We are working closely with clinical colleagues and patient advocates to improve both diagnosis and treatment of these disorders that affect many millions of women and their families. These initiatives have included the development of a substantial resource of human tissues and primary cells, formation of the EXPPECT Centre, funding from donors and pharma and repurposing of drugs for clinical trials.

Further information on our work:

Research in a nutshell video

Translational Research Activity

The Saunders team benefit from close collaborative links with clinicians and companies including Ferring, Bayer, Benevolent AI and IPG Group. They are also active collaborators in the IMI PainCARE consortium which brings together academic researchers and commercial partners to accelerate improvements in treatments for chronic pain including that experienced by women with endometriosis.

IMI PainCARE consortium webpage

The following PDF provides a brief visual summary of this group’s current research.


You can view a full catalogue of graphical research summaries for each group in the Centre for Inflammation Research by visiting our Research page.

Visit CIR’s Research page

Biographical Profile

I obtained a PhD from the University of Cambridge and then undertook postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Florida and the Institute of Zoology in London. After coming to Edinburgh I established an independent research group within the MRC Human Reproductive Sciences Unit exploring the mechanisms that underlie steroid-dependent impacts on reproductive health in men and women. I served as Head of the University Centre for Reproductive Biology from 2007-2011 and Inaugural Director of the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health (2011-2012). Between 2012 and 2016 I was served as Dean of Postgraduate Research for the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine and was a member of the College Strategy Group.

Honours and Awards

  • 2011   Fellow, Society of Biology
  • 2012   Fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences
  • 2015   Fellow ad eundem, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
  • 2019   Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • 2019   Society for Endocrinology Medal

Other Responsiblities

Academy of Medical Sciences
  • Non-clinical Fellowship Panel 2020-2022
  • Registrar 2016-2021
  • Chair, Springboard Grants Panel 2015-2019
  • Council 2016-2021
  • Task group 'Impact of Big Science on Career Progression' 2014-2016; Co-chair, Team Science Progress Review 2018
Medical Research Council (UKRI)
  • Non-Clinical Training and Career Development Panel 2020-2022
  • UKRI Mouse Genetics Cluster assessment Panel 2021
Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • Sectional Committee A4 (Cell and Molecular Biology) 2019-
Royal Society of London
  • Newton Fellowship Review Panel 2014-
L’Oreal-UNESCO UK and Ireland for Women in Science Fellowships
  • External review panel 2013-
University of Edinburgh Committees
  • Ethical Review Panel The University of Edinburgh Biological Services 2003-
Society membership
  • 1979-           Society for the Study of Fertility
  • 1987-           British Society for Endocrinology
  • 1990-           British Society for Cell Biology
  • 1993-           Society of the Study of Reproduction (USA)
  • 1997-           Endocrine Society USA
  • 2006-           Member SET (Women in science, engineering and technology)
  • 2009-           Society for Gynecological Investigation (USA)
  • 2010-           Institute of Biology

Public Engagement

  • Twitter. @p_saunder. 900 followers. Regular tweets on topics related to women's health, research funding and Team Science.
  • University of Edinburgh Research Insights Programme. Online 17 February 2021. Tackling the pain of endometriosis. >200 attendees.  Tackling the Pain of Endometrosis 
  • Scottish Parliament. Annual Endometriosis Awareness Event. March 2019, 2020.
  • Endometriosis UK. Research Day. 16 November 2019. Pelvic pain – research priorities and progress towards better therapies.
  • Edinburgh Science Festival. ‘Endometriosis – the bloody truth’. 14 April 2019.
  • Stills Gallery. 2 April 2019. 'Beyond the Invisible' Photography exhibition jointly sponsored by Standard Life and Endometriosis UK. UoE sponsored evening. Introduction and Chair.


Sources of Funding

Society of Endocrinology

More information on funding at Philippa Saunders' Research Explorer profile.