William Cawthorn

Senior Lecturer

  • Centre for Cardiovascular Science

Contact details



Queen's Medical Research Institute
47 Little France Crescent
Edinburgh BioQuarter

Post code
EH16 4TJ


I'm a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Cardiovascular Science, University of Edinburgh. My research addresses adipose tissue formation and function, as well as sex differences in health and disease. My studies combine preclinical animal models, human clinical studies and data science approaches using the UK Biobank. Methods include in-depth metabolic phenotyping, immunological analyses, the development of novel biomedical imaging techniques, and artificial intelligence to open new avenues for population-level studies. Together, my research addresses the interplay between metabolism, immunological function and skeletal health, both in the context of fundamental biology and chronic diseases. Beyond these research interests, I'm passionate about science communication and policy, particularly relating to open science, research culture and integrity. I am the University of Edinburgh’s Open Science Ambassador for the League of European Research Institutions (LERU); a co-founder of the Edinburgh Open Research Initiative (https://edopenresearch.com); and the University of Edinburgh Local Network Lead for the UK Reproducibility Network.


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Responsibilities & affiliations


Interim President, International Bone Marrow Adiposity Society (BMAS)


Open Science Ambassador for the University of Edinburgh (representing the University for LERU, the League of European Research Universities)


University of Edinburgh representative for the UK Reproducibility Network


Member, CVS Teaching Committee


Member, CVS Student Experience Committee


Member, Association for the Study of Obesity (ASO) – Scotland Committee


Member of the University of Edinburgh Working Group on Research Metrics


Member, International Society for Bone Morphometry


Member, American Society for Bone and Mineral Research


Editorial Board Member, Diabetes


Secretary and founding member, International Bone Marrow Adiposity Society (BMAS)


Editor, Frontiers in Endocrinology special issue on Bone marrow adipose tissue


Member, Bone Research Society (UK)


Member, CVS Public Engagement Committee. Co-coordinator of CVS Twitter account (@EdinUniCVS) and @EdinUniMetabol for public outreach and communication.


Review Editor, Frontiers in Endocrinology and Frontiers in Genetics


Member, The Society for Endocrinology


Member, CVS Seminars Committee and Communications and Social Committee.


Coordinator, CVS weekly student and postdoc seminar series.


Member, The American Physiological Society


Member, The Endocrine Society (USA)


President, Postdoctoral Society of the University of Michigan Department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology

Research summary

My research addresses the interplay between metabolism, immunological function and skeletal health in the context of both fundamental biology and chronic diseases. To do so I combine preclinical animal models, human clinical studies and data science approaches using the UK Biobank. Methods include the development of new biomedical imaging techniques and artificial intelligence to open new avenues for population-level studies. My key research interests are as follows:


A) Bone marrow adipose tissue (BMAT):

My overarching research goal is to determine the function of BMAT and its impact on human health. BMAT comprises >10% of total adipose mass in lean, healthy humans, and further increases in diverse clinical contexts. In striking contrast to white adipose tissue (WAT) and brown adipose tissue (BAT), BMAT accumulates during caloric restriction (CR), a condition that promotes healthy ageing by preventing and treating chronic diseases. Thus, altered BMAT formation and/or function might impact numerous human diseases. However, the physiological and pathological functions of BMAT were previously almost completely unknown.

 In 2015 I was awarded an MRC Career Development Award to investigate the metabolic and endocrine functions of BMAT. One barrier to understanding BMAT formation and function has been the inability to measure BMAT on a population-level. To address this, in 2019 I was awarded an MRC Research Grant to develop new deep-learning methods for high-throughput, automated analysis of BMAT in the UK Biobank imaging study. My key achievements are as follows:

  1. Discovered that, during states of caloric restriction (CR), BMAT is a key source of adiponectin, a hormone implicated with improved cardiometabolic health (Cawthorn et al, Cell Metabolism 2014).
  2. Identified glucocorticoids as drivers of BMAT accumulation during CR (Cawthorn et al, Endocrinology 2016 and Lovdel et al, Endocrine Abstracts 2018), highlighting mechanisms through which nutritional status regulates BMAT formation.
  3. Developed new biomedical imaging methods to investigate BMAT function in vivo, both preclinically and in humans. This research, which has yielded new research datasets (GSE138690) and software code (ROCPerPixel), revealed that BMAT has high basal glucose uptake and is metabolically distinct from WAT and BAT; thus, BMAT represents a third major, distinct adipose tissue subtype(Suchacki et al, Nature Communications 2020).
  4. Developed deep learning to automate BMAT analysis from MRI data in the UK Biobank (presented at ISMRM 2021BMA2022 and ISBM2022preprint on medRxiv).

Moreover, in 2017 I worked as key member of an international, multidisciplinary team of researchers to cofound The International Bone Marrow Adiposity Society (BMAS; http://bma-society.org/), of which I am the inaugural Secretary and am currently acting as interim President. I edited the first special issue on BMAT for Frontiers in Endocrinology; lead the BMAS Nomenclature Working Group, with corresponding authorship on our first BMAS position paper (Bravenboer et al, Frontiers in Endocrinology 2020; and serve on of the BMAS Biobanking Working Group, co-authoring our recently published biobanking guidelines for BMAT research (Lucas et al, Frontiers in Endocrinology 2021).

Since 2015 my BMAT research has contributed to 23 peer-reviewed publications, 33 invited seminars, 30 conference abstracts, 2 PhD theses and 1 book chapter.


B) Adiponectin function in caloric restriction

My finding that BMAT is a key source of adiponectin raises a key question: what is adiponectin’s function during CR? Thus, another of my major research interests is to elucidate adiponectin’s contribution to the metabolic and immunological benefits of CR. I have pursued this goal through preclinical studies in adiponectin knockout (KO) mice, and through Mendelian Randomisation using the UK Biobank. Key advances are as follows:

  1. Discovered that, unexpectedly, adiponectin KO enhances the metabolic benefits of CR (Sulston PhD Thesis) and alters CR’s immunological effects (Mattiucci PhD thesis).
  2. Mendelian Randomisation revealed that decreased circulating adiponectin may influence immunological function in humans, including the risk of adverse COVID-19 outcomes (unpublished studies in progress).

Since 2015 my adiponectin research has contributed to 27 invited seminars, 12 conference abstracts, and 2 PhD theses. 


C) Sex differences in the effects of caloric restriction

My BMAT and adiponectin research has identified age-dependent sex differences in the CR response, with young females resisting many of CR’s health benefits. For example, in male mice CR decreases fat mass, improves glucose tolerance and suppresses haematopoiesis, whereas females resist these effects. These differences no longer occur in aged mice, in which CR elicits similar metabolic benefits in both sexes. Notably, my research has revealed similar age-dependent sex differences during CR in humans. These findings are reported in our 2023 eLife paper and available as open datasets (University of Edinburgh DataShare, and GSE230402).

To further investigate the basis and extent of these sex differences I have been awarded two research grants (one as PI, one as Co-Investigator) and am the principal supervisor for a final-year PhD student who is contributing to this research.

Since 2015 this research has contributed to 4 peer-reviewed publications, 25 invited seminars, 2 PhD theses, and 18 abstracts at local, national and international meetings. They are the basis for three ongoing interdisciplinary collaborations.

Finally, I am a strong advocate for open research and research integrity, including representing the University of Edinburgh as an Open Science Ambassador for the League of European Research Universities (LERU), and as the University’s representative for the UK Reproducibility Network (UKRN). Through these roles I have contributed to position papers and online resources relevant to research openness and integrity.

Research activities

View all 60 activities on Research Explorer

View all 51 publications on Research Explorer

Lab Members:

  • Yoshiko Ikushima (postdoc funded by Japan Society for Promotion of Science, 2021-2025)
  • Wei Xu (postdoc in Evi Theodoratou's group at Usher Institute, working on our MRC-funded UK Biobank project)
  • Calum Grey (senior research fellow in Edinburgh Imaging, working on our MRC-funded UK Biobank project)
  • Kuan-Chan Chen (PhD student funded by Taiwanese government, 2022-2025)
  • Samuel Sjostrom (BHF-funded PhD student, 2023-2026)
  • Worachet (Bew) Promruk (PhD student, 2022-2025)
  • Hamna Hamna (PhD student, 2022-2026)



  • Prof. Evropi Theodoratou (Usher Institute, University of Edinburgh). Leading on our GWAS and PheWAS studies for BMAT in the UK Biobank.
  • Prof. Scott Semple and Dr Tom Macgillivray (Edinburgh Imaging, University of Edinburgh). Helping to lead on BMAT analysis in UK Biobank MRI scans.
  • Dr. Chengjia Wang (Heriot Watt University). Working on deep learning models to assess BMAT in UK Biobank
  • Prof. Alexandra Johnstone (Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen). Collaborator on studies about sex differences in weight loss diets.



  • Karla Suchacki (MRC-funded postdoc, 2015-2020). Has now obtained a permanent position at SRUC
  • David Morris (MRC-funded postdoc, 2020-2023, working on UK Biobank project)
  • Julia Münzker (visiting postdoc, 2017)



  • Andrea Lovdel (CMVM-funded PhD student). Now Clinical Trial manager at Novo Nordisk.
  • Benjamin Thomas (BHF-funded, 2018-2022). Now working in Biotech in Switzerland.
  • Lisa Ivatt (MScR student, as part of her 4-year BHF PhD)
  • Richard Sulston (BHF-funded PhD student, 2015-2019). Currently pursuing a career in patent law in London.
  • Domenico Mattiucci (visiting PhD student from Italy; went on to a postdoc at the University of Edinburgh Centre for Regenerative Medicine; now at Novo Nordisk)
  • Yige Sun (Master's student on the Neuroscience MSc programme).
  • Iris Pruñonosa (visiting Erasmus student, now a student in CVS on the BHF 4-year PhD programme)
  • Alexandre Lafond, Diana Said, Matthew Sinton, Xuan Han, Holly Woodward (Previous MScR students). Matthew and Holly completed their PhDs in our department.
  • Fiona Roberts, Rachel Bell, Eleanor Brain, Kim Crane, Lucius Lo and Wendy Workman (previous BSc Hons students. Fiona has since completed her PhD at Edinburgh and is now a postdoc in Copenhagen. Rachel is now doing her PhD in Edinburgh. Eleanor and Kim are at Medical School, and Wendy is exploring PhD opportunities).
  • Caitlin Jones, Catherine Redshaw and Richard West (previous summer undergraduate students)