Centre for Inflammation Research

Professor Philippa Saunders

Philippa Saunders' group are exploring the 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 Inflammation Research

Contact details

Group Members

  • Frances Collins - Laboratory Manager
  • Arantza Esnal-Zufiaurre - Research Support
  • Douglas Gibson - Senior Postdoctoral Fellow (Orcid ID: 0000-0002-9949-1983)
  • Phoebe Kirkwood - MRC Transition Fellowship 2018-2019
  • Isaac Shaw - Postdoctoral Research Fellow
  • Ioannis Simitsidellis - EU-funded Postdoctoral Fellow (Orcid ID: 0000-0002-9764-3330)


Visiting group members 2019

We have been pleased to welcome several visitors from Europe to the lab this year, all of whom have enriched our research activity.  Kristina Kiisholts (Tartu, Estonia) and Dr Sakthi Ponandai-Srinivasan (Karolinska, Sweden) have both been funded by a grant from the EU entitled MOMENDO that supports exchange of researchers between groups exploring the mechanisms responsible for pain in women suffering from endometriosis.

Justine Vaccaro from Polytech Marseille undertook a summer studentship under the supervision of Dr Douglas Gibson.  Justine's project investigated the role of oestrogens in regulating epithelial and immune cell function in the endometrium and was generously supported by the Society for Endocrinology.


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

Graphical representation of endometrial wound repair
Graphical representation of endometrial wound repair highlighting a role for a diverse population of immune cells as well as steroid hormones

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

Congratulations to:

Ioannis Simitsidellis who has been awarded a prestigious £10,000 Early Career Grant from the Society of Endocrinology to continue his studies on the impact of selective androgen receptor modulators.

Phoebe Kirkwood who was awarded a MRC Transition Fellowship, including a year's salary and training costs allowing her to expand her skills in bioinformatics and apply these to genomic datasets generated during her PhD.

Douglas Gibson who will give his Early Career Prize lecture entitled 'The importance of local steroid action in the regulation of fertility' at the Endocrinology BES conference in Brighton in November.  Doug receives an honorarium of £750, as well as having an article published in The Endocrinologist.  At the same conference Philippa will be presented with the Society medal and give her medal lecture entitled 'Sex steroids and the endometrium: dynamics and disorders'.

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
  • 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
Royal Society of London
  • Newton Fellowship Review Panel 2014-
University of Edinburgh Committees
  • Ethical Review Panel The University of Edinburgh Biological Services 2003-
Translational Research Activity

2013-  Ithus. Spin Out Company. (co-founders Andrew Horne, Philippa Saunders, Erin Greaves). Pump priming from Bioquarter £25,000 (Bioquarter champion Mike Finnen)

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

Chair, Public Talk at the Edinburgh Science Festival April 2014

Chair UoE Public lecture series 'Our Changing World'

Speaker, Public Talk Edinburgh Science Festival April 2012 'Sex steroids: bodies, babies and brains'


Sources of Funding

Society of Endocrinology

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