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Queen’s Prize honours research to improve women’s health

The University of Edinburgh has received a prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its work to improve women’s health.

The award recognises more than 40 years of research that has transformed clinical practice and subsequently changed women’s lives around the world.

Baby in the womb imaged using magnetic resonance imaging
Baby in the womb imaged using magnetic resonance imaging

Reducing maternal mortality

Research at the University has helped the prevention of death, disability and psychological distress due to unwanted pregnancy.

Over the past four decades colleagues at Edinburgh have developed safe and effective methods of non-surgical abortion, refined for both high and low income countries.

The method is now used world-wide and has largely replaced surgical methods for termination. It has contributed to major falls in maternal mortality in countries such as Nepal and South Africa.

Safe and effective contraception

On a more local level, colleagues have contributed to landmark papers on emergency contraception (the morning after pill) demonstrating these the respctive agents as effective and safe.

Data combined with advocacy work with UK and Scottish governments led to the approval of ‘over the counter’ emergency contraception throughout the UK in 2000, and ultimately throughout Europe and the USA too.

We are extremely honoured to receive this Prize, which recognises decades of work from many people spanning multiple disciplines. We’d like to acknowledge our national and international collaborators, and the many research groups in Edinburgh who have contributed to this work, including the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health (formerly the Centre for Reproductive Biology), the MRC Centre for Inflammation, the Clinical Research Imaging Centre, the Centre for Integrative Physiology and the Centre for Comparative Pathology. Much of the work would not have been possible without the major contributions from our NHS colleagues. We are enormously grateful to the very many patients who have been involved  in different ways in our research endeavours plus the many funding bodies who have supported our work. Indeed much of our research would not have been possible without them and their desire to contribute to a better understanding of conditions that impact on the lives so many women.

Professors Jane Norman and Hilary CritchleyMRC Centre for Reproductive Health

Life-saving treatments for breast  cancer

Baby brain pathways. Pathways in the baby brain identified by diffusion magnetic resonance imaging of a sleeping newborn.
Baby brain pathways. Pathways in the baby brain identified by diffusion magnetic resonance imaging of a sleeping newborn.

Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in women.

Research conducted at the University since the 1980’s has focussed on reducing mortality. Pioneering research led to trials of aromatase inhibitors which are now used in 75% of breast cancer patients worldwide.

Edinburgh scientists also introduced the concept of giving hormone targeting therapy to shrink cancers before surgery, a strategy now used worldwide.

Over the 40 year involvement of work in this area, five year survival of breast cancer has improved from 53% in 1971-72 to 87% in 2010/11.

This equals an additional 340,000 women per year who live for more than 5 years after their diagnosis.

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is the second most common female specific cause of cancer death in the UK.

Colleagues in Edinburgh have made major contributions to the clinical development of novel treatment of relapsed ovarian cancer, previously regarded as incurable.

Fertility preservation

Experts in Edinburgh have also pioneered strategies to preserve fertility in young women treated for cancer, with 10,000 young women likely to benefit in the UK each year.

We are proud that this award recognises Edinburgh’s “bench to bedside” approach to improve women’s health care – from fundamental biology studies and drug development to clinical trials. We hope this award will inspire some of the fantastic young researchers and clinicians we have in Edinburgh to join us in this goal.

Professors Jane Norman and Hilary Critchley
MSc and PhD students at one of our research days
MSc and PhD students at one of our research days

Reducing rates of stillbirth

Stillbirth affects 1 in 200 pregnancies in the UK (a total of 3,600 babies dying per year), with rates in the UK amongst the highest of all European countries.

Edinburgh research findings led to new guidelines from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 2013, recommending that women above 40 should be offered induction of labour at 39 weeks.

It is estimated that offering induction of labour to women aged 40 years or more will prevent the stillbirths of 17 UK babies per year

Studies led by Edinburgh have also led to better treatments for problems that arise during pregnancy, improving the health of pregnant women and the next generation.

Endometriosis and menstrual bleeding complaints

Understanding why women menstruate: the image shows white blood cells infiltrating the womb-lining during menstruation
Understanding why women menstruate: the image shows white blood cells infiltrating the womb-lining during menstruation

1 in 3 women of reproductive age suffer with heavy periods. Experts have made major contributions to the development of new treatments for heavy periods, which will improve quality of life for women worldwide.

Studies at the University have also helped to define the biological causes of endometriosis, paving the way for therapies to treat the condition, which affects 1.5 million women in the UK.

The Queen’s Anniversary Prizes

The Queen’s Anniversary Prizes are part of the honours system and are awarded every two years by The Queen on the Prime Minister’s advice.

Edinburgh is among 21 institutions to receive a prize in the latest round, which will be awarded at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in February 2018.

It is the third time in a row – and the fifth time ever – the University has received a Prize.

Related links

MRC Centre for Reprodutive Health

Queen's Anniversary Prize