Centre for Regenerative Medicine

Elaine Emmerson Research Group

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.

Dr Elaine Emmerson

Group Leader

Contact details

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.

More information

The Emmerson group is participating in a Sci-Art collaboration with local artist, Emily Fong http://emilyfongstudio.com/ which is supported by The Throat Cancer Foundation http://www.throatcancerfoundation.org/. The aim of the project is to:

  1. Raise awareness of the prevalence of head and neck cancer and the long-term side-effects of radiotherapy
  2. Promote collaboration and discussion between those involved throughout the entire process
  3. Engage with a public audience that may otherwise not be reached by conventional science communication methods
Video: G-Lands: an out-of-body experience
Dr Elaine Emmerson and artist Emily Fong describe their collaborative sci-art project G-Lands: An out of body experience. Elaine leads a research group searching for ways to repair salivary glands following radiotherapy treatment for cancer. Emily shows some of her drawings and describes how she is using drawing and sculpture to bring the science to the public and her hope that this project will create a dialogue between scientists, clinicians, patients and the public.

Dr Emmerson is also a STEM Ambassador and a member of the University of Edinburgh Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Board (AWERB).

Group Members

Sonia Elder (Welcome Trust PhD Student)

Erin Watson (PhD Student)

Elaine Emmerson Research Group Members



  • 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)