Centre for Inflammation Research

Professor Donald J Davidson

Donald J Davidson's lab studies the role of cationic host defence peptides (antimicrobial peptides) as modulators of cell death, inflammation and immunity in infectious and inflammatory lung diseases, and innate immune signalling.

Professor Donald J Davidson

Chair of Host Defence & Inflammation Biology / Centre Academic Lead for Public Engagement

  • Centre for Inflammation Research

Contact details

Group Members

  • Lauren Melrose - Research Technician

  • Patrick Lennard - PhD student (Supervisors: (Edinburgh) Professor J Dorin, Dr J Regan, Professor W Wood, Professor D Davidson; (Leiden) Professor P Hiemstra)


Infectious diseases

Infectious diseases are a leading cause of death and ill health, increasingly exacerbated by antibiotic-resistant microbes. Pathogens resistant to conventional therapeutics represent an ever-increasing challenge. Greater understanding of innate host defence mechanisms and novel therapeutic approaches are urgently required.

Antimicrobial defences: Immunomodulatory Host Defence Peptides

Innate responses are the first line of defence against pathogens, but remain under-researched and under-exploited. Important components of early innate immunity are host-defence peptides (HDP; also known as antimicrobial peptides). Although initially described as microbicidal agents, we and others have characterised them as modulators of inflammation and immunity. HDP can promote innate responses; enhancing protective inflammation and repair. These peptides are emerging as important in diseases affecting multiple organs including in the lung, skin and gastrointestinal tract. However, their specific modulatory roles in defence against bacterial and viral infection remain poorly understood.

In addition, HDP are powerful templates for the development of novel microbicidal immunomodulatory therapeutics, with the capacity to circumvent microbial resistance strategies to conventional therapeutics by enhancing natural defences. However, the full potential of HDP-derived therapeutics is only likely to be realised through greater understanding of the multiple mechanisms employed by naturally-occurring HDP in host defence against specific bacterial and viral infectious diseases.

Our studies are primarily focused on two families of HDP: cathelicidins and defensins.

Human cathelicidin hCAP18/LL-37

Cathelicidins are multipotent immunomodulatory HDP. The sole human cathelicidin hCAP-18 (CAMP) is stored in neutrophil-specific granules and is inducible in epithelial cells and macrophages. LL-37 is the predominant active HDP generated from hCAP-18. hCAP-18/LL-37 can be detected in airway surface liquid, plasma, sweat and other body fluids, and is upregulated in infection and inflammation.

The importance of LL-37 to host defence against infection is demonstrated by the increased susceptibility to infection of individuals with morbus Kostmann (in which neutrophils are cathelicidin-deficient), the correlation between LL-37 levels and susceptibility to infection in dermatological pathologies, and the upregulation of hCAP-18/LL-37 observed in infectious lung diseases. Mice deficient in mCRAMP (Camp), the murine hCAP-18 orthologue, have increased susceptibility to bacterial infections of the lung, skin, intestinal tract, cornea and urinary tract. However, the specific protective immunomodulatory mechanisms involved, and the key cellular sources of cathelicidin remain undetermined.

Human beta-Defensin 2

Beta-defensins are also multipotent immunomodulatory HDP, but are expressed principally by epithelial cells and keratinocytes. We are principally interested in human beta-defensin 2, which is induced by inflammation and infection, but under-expressed in the skin of individuals with Atopic Dermatitis. In addition to microbicidal potential, this peptide has modulatory functions that may be critical to maintaining skin barrier.

Recent Discoveries

We have recently discovered that:

  • Cathelicidins are protective against Respiratory Syncytial Virus infections in mouse models and in humans.

  • Cathelicidins are protective against influenza infection.

  • Cathelicidins are protective against pulmonary infection with Pseudomonas aeruginosa via modulatory mechanisms; affecting host neutrophil responses.

  • Cathelicidins can modulate the function, differentiation and cell death of innate immune effector cells; including induction of cathelicidin-primed dendritic cells.

  • Beta-Defensin 2 can enhance skin barrier function and promote wound healing.

Research Overview

We are interested in elucidating the physiological importance of host defence peptides to innate and adaptive host defences, and the potential of their synthetic derivatives as future preventative and therapeutic antimicrobial agents.

Current research projects in the laboratory are focused upon:

  • The importance of host defence modulation and microbicidal activities in cathelicidin-mediated protection against pulmonary viruses (including Respiratory Syncytial Virus and Influenza), and their potential for novel protective and therapeutic interventions.

  • The role and therapeutic potential of defensins, and related synthetic derivatives, in the treatment of Atopic Dermatitis.

  • The biological significance and therapeutic potential of cathelicidin-primed dendritic cells in host immunity.

  • The role of cathelicidin-induced epithelial cell death of bacterially / virally infected cells, as an innate pulmonary defence.

  • The key cellular sources of cathelicidins and therapeutic inducibility.

Additional and collaborative projects focus on:

  • The function of cathelicidins as direct modulators of adaptive immune responses.

  • Novel approaches to imaging HDP interactions with microbes and mammalian cells.

  • The physiological importance of lipoxins in non-CF bronchiectasis, and potential as therapeutic targets.

  • The importance of HDP in regulation of the microbiome.

  • The role of HDP in the female reproductive tract and in premature birth.

  • Neutrophil NET formation in host defence and the role of calprotectin in the cystic fibrosis lung disease.

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

Donald Davidson is a medical graduate of the University of Edinburgh who chose to pursue a non-clinical research career. He completed a PhD at the MRC Human Genetics Unit, studying the pathogenesis of cystic fibrosis lung disease, then was awarded a Wellcome Trust Travelling Research Fellowship to undertake post-doctoral training in innate immunity research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. After four years in Canada, he was recruited to the MRC / University of Edinburgh Centre for Inflammation Research, where he has developed an independent research group, focused on cationic host defence peptides and pulmonary innate defence mechanisms, funded initially as a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellow, and then as an MRC Senior Non-clinical Fellow.

Honours and Awards

  • Principal's Medal for Exceptional Contribution, 2020
  • Personal Chair of Host Defence & Inflammation Biology, 2019
  • Adjunct Associate Professor, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia, 2017 - current

  • Beltane Public Engagement Fellow 2018

  • Nominated and elected to be Gordon Research Conference on Antimicrobial Peptides Vice Chair (2017) and Chair (2019)
  • Distinguished Collaborator Award, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia, 2012-2015
  • Fellow of the Society of Biology, 2015
  • MRC Senior Non-clinical Fellowship award, 2011-2016
  • Wellcome Trust Career Development Fellowship award, 2005-2010
  • Miss A M Urquhart's Charitable Trust, young scientist award, 2005
  • British Columbia Research Institute "Research team of Distinction" award, 2004
  • Best post presentation, Canadian Bacterial Diseases Network Meeting, 2003
  • British Columbia Research Institute Outstanding Achievement by a Postdoctoral Fellow award, 2002
  • Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Fellowship award, 2002-2004
  • Wellcome Trust International Travelling Prize Fellowship award, 2000-2002

Other Responsibilities

  • Programme Director of Medical Sciences & Translational Research PhD with integrated studies in Engagement for Impact Programme 2020 - current

  • Academic Lead for QMRI TestEd COVID19 testing project, 2021 - 2022

  • Associated Member of the CIR Postgraduate Studies Commitee, 2021 - current

  • Chair of the BSI affinity group on Inflammation, 2017-2019

  • External Examiner Imperial College London (MSc Immunology), 2017-2021

  • Member of the Athena SWAN SCS & SMGPHS Steering Group, 2016-2017

  • Member of the Athena SWAN SCS & SMGPHS Self Assessment Board, 2014-2017

  • Chair of the Athena SWAN Career Progression and Equality Committee, 2016-2017

  • Lead for the Athena SWAN Promotions subcommittee, 2015-2017
  • Secretary to the BSI affinity group on Inflammation, 2013-2017
  • Chair of the CIR Blood Resource Management Committee, 2015-2021
  • Member of the CIR Postgraduate Studies Committee, 2008-2021
  • Advisory board member: Inflammation Research, 2008 - current 
  • Member of Queen’s Medical Research Institute Postdoctoral Committee, 2007-2015
  • Scottish MRC Centenary Community Event Committee member, 2013
  • Lead for new CIR website development, 2011-2013
  • Member of the UoE Animal Welfare Committee, 2011-2016
  • Member of Queen’s Medical Research Institute GM Safety Committee, 2009-2016
  • Ordinary member of the Society for Leukocyte Biology & British Society for Immunology
  • Organiser of the Centre for Inflammation Research Seminar Series, 2009-2013
  • MBChB Tutor: Student Selected Component 2a (University of Edinburgh) 2006-2014
  • MBChB Course Organiser: Student Selected Component 2a (University of Edinburgh) 2007-2013
  • Member of the MBChB Year 1/2 Development Committee 2010-2013
  • Chair of the Queen’s Medical Research Institute PhD Open Day Committee, 2007-2012


  • Sam Walker - PhD student (2017-2022)

  • Katharin Balbirnie-Cumming - PhD student (2018-2022)

  • Jonathan Gillan - Postdoctoral Researcher (2021-2022)
  • Sofia Sintoris - MScR student (2020-2022)

  • Katie Smith - PhD student (2018-2022)
  • Jennifer Shelley - PhD student (2018-2021)

  • Jamil Jubrail - Postdoctoral Researcher (2019-2021)

  • Jonathan Gillan - PhD student (2017-2021)

  • Karishma Jayachandran, MSc student (2020)

  • Alicia Ruiz Rodriguez - Postdoctoral Researcher (2019-2020)

  • Sara van Boeckel PhD student (2016-2020)

  • Danielle Minns - PhD student (2017-2020)

  • Yee Hwee Ong, MSc student (2019)

  • Pallavi Bedi, PhD student (2014-2018)

  • Brian McHugh, Postdoctoral researcher (2012-2017)

  • Tina Baker, PhD student (2013-2017)

  • Emily Gwyer Findlay, Postdoctoral researcher (2012-2017)
  • Holly Stevens, Research Assistant (2015-2017)
  • Bingjie Wang, MSc/PhD student (2012-2017)
  • Robert Gray, Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellow (2011–2016)
  • Ayub Qureshi, MPhil student (2011-2016)
  • Rongling Wang, MSc student (2015-2016)
  • Silke Currie, PhD student (2011-2015)
  • Annie Mackellar, Research Assistant (2008-2015)
  • Lisa Young, Research Assistant (2014-2015)
  • Paula Beaumont, PhD student (2007-2014)
  • Lorraine Frew, PhD student (2011-2014)
  • Rebekah Kells, MSc Student (2012-2013)
  • Jana Ovciarikova, MSc student (2013)
  • Ross Mills, MSc Student (2012-2013)
  • Olga Moncayo, Clinical Fellow (2013)
  • Greg Armstrong, MSc student (2012)
  • Feng Li, MSc Student (2011)
  • Hsin-Ni Li, PhD student (2006-2010)
  • Peter Barlow, Postdoctoral Researcher (2005-2008)

Public Engagement

  • Chair of CMVM Public Engagement with Research Advisory Group 2021 - current

  • Chair of CIR Public Engagement & Communications Committee, 2013 – current

  • Academic Lead for Public Engagement in the CIR, 2015 – current

  • British Society for Immunology Public Engagement Secretary, 2018 – 2022

  • Beltane Public Engagement Fellow in Infectious Diseases, 2018 - current
  • National MRC Open Communications Forum member, 2015 – current
  • NCCPE Public Engagement Professionals Network member, 2018 – 2020
  • University of Edinburgh CMVM PE forum member, 2015 - current
  • Scottish PE Network member, 2017 – current
  • STEM NET ambassador, 2015 – current
  • Immune Memory and the Coronavirus animations
  • Science Insights contributor since 2015
  • Edinburgh International Science Festival CIR activities, 2014 – current
  • CIR MRC Festival of Science lead, 2015-2019
  • Primary School Outreach - Science Week, 2012 - current

  • The Institute of Ideas "Debating Matters" - Qualifying rounds and Regional Finals Judge, 2012-2015
  • British Society for Immunology "Going Viral" SciArt Public Engagement Initiative, 2012
  • Illustration and co-design (with Dr Marieke Hoeve) of "Micromania" – an infectious disease Happy Families card game for use as a school teaching aid, 2011
  • School Work Experience Programme participant, 2011/2012
  • Invited speaker at the Wellcome Trust PhD students Career Day, 2007-2010
  • Represented the Wellcome Trust at the 2009 Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, in the 'Science at Sheffield' strand of events.
  • Royal Society MP-Scientist Pairing scheme participant, 2006-2007
  • SciArt and scientific cartooning
  • Involvement in the inaugural University of British Columbia Mini-Med School: to inspire, educate and communicate with the next generation of scientists and clinicians, 2004
  • Initiation, organisation and chairing of a series of debates to address the ethical, legal and sociological issues surrounding the science of the "new genetics", 1998-1999


Sources of Funding

More information on funding at Donald Davidson's Research Explorer profile.