Philippa Saunders


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Personal 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 adn 2018 I served as Dean of Postgraduate Research for the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine. A full Listing of my publications can be found by clicking here.


Sex steroids are synthesised and secreted by the gonads and adrenals as well as peripheral tissues e.g. adipose and skin. Local concentrations of steroids are also modulated within target tissues, a feature of human tissues known as ‘intracrinology’ which has been implicated in development of cancers. Steroids can regulate tissue function by binding to receptors that function as ligand activated transcription factors within the nucleus with cell specific effects dependent upon recruitment of a ‘cocktail’ of cofactors.  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.

Research Overview

Reproductive tissues in both men and women display remarkable properties of resilience and repair that are regulated by steroids. During a women’s reproductive life the endometrium found within the luminal portion of the uterus (womb) retains a remarkable degree of developmental plasticity that allows it to adapt to the challenges imposed by the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. During each menstrual cycle the luminal portion of the tissue is shed at menses, an event that is immediately preceded by a marked inflammatory response characterized 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. Our studies on the fundamental processes that contribute to inflammation, repair and regeneration of this tissue are using primary human cells, 3D cell cultures as well as novel mouse models.

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 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 an Endometriosis Centre, funding from Pharma and funding for several clinical trials.

For further information on our work, please take a look at our research in a nutshell video by clicking here.

Current Research Projects

  • Impact of oestrogens and androgens on immune cells, the vasculature and reproductive stroma
  • A role for mast cells in oestrogen dependent nociception in endometriosis?
  • Early Diagnosis and Treatment Strategies for Endometrial Cancer
  • iNKT cells as drivers for preterm labour
  • A new era in the treatment of chronic debilitating women's health disorders using selective progesterone receptor modulators
  • Integrated multi-dimensional molecular organ imaging
  • Reversing endometrial glucocorticoid deficiency in heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Wellbeing of Women.  Towards new treatments for endometriosis: assessing whether the TGFβ-superfamily of genes in the pelvis is a good target for innovative drug therapies
  • MRC Centre for Reproductive Health
  • QMRI Mass Spectrometry Facility
  • QMRI FACS facility core funding
  • Tommy’s the Baby Charity Research Charity

Group Members

Dr Douglas Gibson (Postdoctoral Fellow)
Frances Collins (Laboratory Manager)
Arantza Esnal (Senior Research Support)
Ioannis Simitsidellis (Postdoctoral Fellow)
Dr Peter Sanderson (Clinical Research Fellow)
Dr Phoebe Kirkwood (MRC Transition Fellow)


External Committees:

       Medical Research Council:

          Population and Systems Medicine Board (PSMB) 2012-2016
          Medical Research Foundation Equipment Panel 2014.

       Academy of Medical Sciences:
          Registrar 2016-2021. Academic Careers Committee 2012
          Section 5 Fellows appointment committee 2014-2016.
          Task group ‘Impact of Team Science on Career Progression’ 2014- (joint chair)
          Clinical Fellows Interview Panel 2014

       Society for Endocrinology:
          Science Committee. 2012
          Finance Committee 2014

       Royal Society of London:
          Newton Fellowship Review Panel 2014

       DFG Germany International Review Panel.

University of Edinburgh Committees:

  • College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine Strategy Committee 2012-2018
  • Senatus Researcher Experience Committee 2012 [Chair, REC Task Group ‘Early Career Researchers’ 2013]
  • Chair, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine Postgraduate Researcher Experience Committee 2012-2016
  • College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine Postgraduate Student Management Committee 2012-2018
  • Athena Swan Committee, School of Clinical Sciences 2012-2014
  • Scientific Advisory Board, The University of Edinburgh Tommy’s Centre for Fetal and Maternal Health 2008-2019
  • Ethical Review Panel The University of Edinburgh Biological Services 2003-

Translational Research Activity:

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

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’: April 2019 'Endometriosis the bloody truth'.


2011 Fellow, Society of Biology
2012 Fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences

2019 Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh

2019, Medal Society of Endocrinology




Education/Academic qualification

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Studies of Pregnancy-Associated Uterine Proteins in the Pig, University of Cambridge

Award Date: 1 Jan 1981

Bachelor of Science, University of Bristol

Award Date: 1 Jan 1976


  • Q Science (General)


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  • Symptom tracking in endometriosis using digital technologies: Knowns, unknowns, and future prospects

    Edgley, K., Horne, A. W., Saunders, P. T. K. & Tsanas, A., 19 Sept 2023, In: Cell Reports Medicine. 4, 9, p. 101192

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    Open Access
  • Global Endometrial DNA Methylation Analysis Reveals Insights into mQTL Regulation and Associated Endometriosis Disease Risk and Endometrial Function

    Mortlock, S., Houshdaran, S., Kosti, I., Rahmioglu, N., Nezhat, C., Vitonis, A., Andrews, S. V., Grosjean, P., Paranjpe, M., Horne, A. W., Jacoby, A., Lager, J., Opoku-Anane, J., Chi Vo, K., Manvelyan, E., Sen, S., Ghukasyan, Z., Collins, F., Santamaria, X., Saunders, P. T. K., & 12 othersKober, K., McRae, A. F., Terry, K. L., Vallve-Juanico, J., Becker, C. M., Rogers, P. A. W., Irwin, J. C., Zondervan, K. T., Montgomery, G. W., Missmer, S. A., Sirota, M. & Giudice, L., 16 Aug 2023, In: Communications biology.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    Open Access
  • The Influence of Sex Hormones in Liver Function and Disease

    Kasarinaite, A., Sinton, M., Saunders, P. T. K. & Hay, D. C., 11 Jun 2023, In: Cells. 12, 12

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    Open Access
  • The genetic basis of endometriosis and comorbidity with other pain and inflammatory conditions

    Rahmioglu, N., Mortlock, S., Ghiasi, M., Møller, P. L., Stefansdottir, L., Galarneau, G., Turman, C., Danning, R., Law, M. H., Sapkota, Y., Christofidou, P., Skarp, S., Giri, A., Banasik, K., Krassowski, M., Lepamets, M., Marciniak, B., Nõukas, M., Perro, D., Sliz, E., & 126 othersSobalska-Kwapis, M., Thorleifsson, G., Topbas-Selcuki, N. F., Vitonis, A., Westergaard, D., Arnadottir, R., Burgdorf, K. S., Campbell, A., Cheuk, C. S. K., Clementi, C., Cook, J., De vivo, I., Divasta, A., Dorien, O., Donoghue, J. F., Edwards, T., Fontanillas, P., Fung, J. N., Geirsson, R. T., Girling, J. E., Harkki, P., Harris, H. R., Healey, M., Heikinheimo, O., Holdsworth-Carson, S., Hostettler, I. C., Houlden, H., Houshdaran, S., Irwin, J. C., Jarvelin, M., Kamatani, Y., Kennedy, S. H., Kepka, E., Kettunen, J., Kubo, M., Kulig, B., Kurra, V., Laivuori, H., Laufer, M. R., Lindgren, C. M., Macgregor, S., Mangino, M., Martin, N. G., Matalliotaki, C., Matalliotakis, M., Murray, A. D., Ndungu, A., Nezhat, C., Olsen, C. M., Opoku-Anane, J., Padmanabhan, S., Paranjpe, M., Peters, M., Polak, G., Porteous, D. J., Rabban, J., Rexrode, K. M., Romanowicz, H., Saare, M., Saavalainen, L., Schork, A. J., Sen, S., Shafrir, A. L., Siewierska-Górska, A., Słomka, M., Smith, B. H., Smolarz, B., Szaflik, T., Szyłło, K., Takahashi, A., Terry, K. L., Tomassetti, C., Treloar, S. A., Vanhie, A., Vincent, K., Vo, K. C., Werring, D. J., Zeggini, E., Zervou, M. I., Stefansson, K., Nyegaard, M., Harkki, P., Heikinheimo, O., Kettunen, J., Kurra, V., Laivuori, H., Uimari, O., Galarneau, G., Clementi, C., Yurttas-Beim, P., Fontanillas, P., Tung, J. Y., Adachi, S., Buring, J. E., Ridker, P. M., D’hooghe, T., Goulielmos, G. N., Hapangama, D. K., Hayward, C., Horne, A. W., Low, S., Martikainen, H., Chasman, D. I., Rogers, P. A. W., Saunders, P. T., Sirota, M., Spector, T., Strapagiel, D., Tung, J. Y., Whiteman, D. C., Giudice, L. C., Velez-Edwards, D. R., Uimari, O., Kraft, P., Salumets, A., Nyholt, D. R., Mägi, R., Stefansson, K., Becker, C. M., Yurttas-Beim, P., Steinthorsdottir, V., Nyegaard, M., Missmer, S. A., Montgomery, G. W., Morris, A. P. & Zondervan, K. T., 1 Mar 2023, (E-pub ahead of print) In: Nature Genetics. 55, 3, p. 423-436

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    Open Access
  • Rodent Animal Models of Endometriosis-Associated Pain: Unmet Needs and Resources Available for Improving Translational Research in Endometriosis

    Tejada, M. A., Antunez, C., Nunez-badinez, P., De Leo, B., Saunders, P. T., Vincent, K., Cano, A., Nagel, J. & Gomez, R., 26 Jan 2023, In: International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 24, 3, p. 2422

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    Open Access
  • ESE

    Philippa Saunders (Member of programme committee)

    18 Sept 201520 Sept 2015

    Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference

  • Endometriosis Patient Awareness Day

    Philippa Saunders (Speaker)

    7 Mar 2015

    Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesPublic Engagement – Public lecture/debate/seminar

  • ESE

    Philippa Saunders (Invited speaker)

    18 Feb 201520 Feb 2015

    Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference

  • Fertility 2015

    Philippa Saunders (Keynote/plenary speaker)

    7 Jan 20159 Jan 2015

    Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference

  • Monash University

    Philippa Saunders (Invited speaker)

    20 Nov 2014

    Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference