Elaine Emmerson

RCUK/UKRI Innovation Fellow and Chancellor’s Fellow


  • 2017-present: Chancellor’s Fellow, MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, The University of Edinburgh
  • 2013-2016: California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) Postdoctoral Research Fellow with Dr. Sarah Knox, Program in Craniofacial Biology, University of California San Francisco, USA
  • 2010-2012: The David Hammond Charitable Foundation Postdoctoral Research Associate with Dr. Matthew Hardman, The Healing Foundation Centre, The University of Manchester
  • 2006-2010: Ph.D. Cell Biology with Prof. Gillian Ashcroft, The University of Manchester
  • 2001-2004: B.Sc. Genetics (Hons), The University of Liverpool

Research summary

Manipulating the stem cell niche to promote regeneration

Radiotherapy is a life-saving treatment for those with cancer; the majority of those with head and neck cancer will receive radiotherapy. Although radiotherapy, in the main, succeeds in treating the cancer, a severe side-effect is damage, including scarring or fibrosis, to healthy tissue. Cells which produce saliva can be destroyed, resulting in a multitude of oral problems, such as a difficulty in eating and speaking, all of which can adversely affect a patient’s quality of life. Existing treatments concentrate only on short-term relief of such side-effects. My group aim to develop a regenerative strategy to restore salivary function.

We have previously demonstrated that nerves surround the salivary glands and interact with stem cells, unspecialised cells that can develop into mature cells following injury, to promote regeneration. Importantly, both the gland and the nerves surrounding it are damaged by radiotherapy. My research group are working to develop technologies to mimic these nerve signals to control stem cells, inflammatory cells and senescent cells, to promote organ regeneration and greatly improve patient quality of life.

Aims and areas of interest

In the field of regenerative medicine, significant progress has been made in cell-based therapies, while the manipulation of the stem cell niche to promote tissue regeneration has received less attention. A major component of the niche is peripheral nerves, which also provide a range of essential signals to the organs of the body, controlling functions such as heart rate and digestion. There is evidence that peripheral nerves are essential for the development, function and replacement of cells in numerous tissues and furthermore that neuronal signals are themselves vital within all three of these areas.

The mechanistic role of stem/progenitor cells particularly interests me, particularly the reactivation and manipulation of resident progenitor cells to maintain tissue homeostasis and promote repair. Using the acini-ductal network of the developing and adult human and murine salivary gland as models of epithelial organogenesis and homeostasis, I have previously demonstrated that parasympathetic nerves preferentially establish, maintain and replenish functional saliva-producing acinar cells via progenitor cells marked by the transcription factor SOX2. My group is working to regenerate salivary gland epithelial tissue, injured by radiation therapy, by combining an exogenous progenitor cell transplant system with an endogenous reactivation method. This will allow a more targeted approach to reinnervating injured organs and as such improving organ function and regeneration.

View all 23 publications on Research Explorer

UKRI/MRC Neuroimmunology Data Generation Award (2021-date)

The University of Edinburgh/Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Funds (2020-date)

Royal Society Research Grant (2019-2020)

Tenovus Scotland, Pilot Grant (2019-2020)

RCUK/UKRI Innovation Fund Fellowship, UK Regenerative Medicine Platform (2018-2021)

The University of Edinburgh/Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Funds (2017-2019)

The University of Edinburgh Chancellor’s Fellowship (2017-2022)

Calum Bain, Centre for Inflammation Research

Anthony Callanan, School of Engineering, The University of Edinburgh

Iain Nixon, Head and Neck Surgeon, NHS Lothian

UKRMP2 Engineered Cell Environment Hub 

Asier Unciti-Broceta, Institute of Genetics and Molecule Medicine, The University of Edinburgh