understanding the maternal immune system

INSTITUTION: Imperial College London
RESEARCHERS: Dr Viki Male, Emily Whettlock, Antonia Cuff, Ee Von Woon

Labour should mark the end of a healthy pregnancy. But sometimes it happens too soon – with devastating consequences. Yet we still do not fully understand what triggers labour. We believe the maternal immune system is central to better understanding pregnancy and childbirth.

During pregnancy, the lining of the uterus is rich in immune cells. There is evidence to suggest that these immune cells may activate at the end of pregnancy, triggering labour. A better understanding of how this happens will help us to find new and better ways to identify mothers at risk of early labour and will direct our research to help us find new ways to delay labour.

about the research

We are funding a research group, led by Principal Investigator Dr Viki Male, at Imperial College’s laboratory at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, which is working to map the immune system in the uterus at the end of pregnancy.

Dr Male’s work is focused on the role and development of cells in the lining of the uterus and their contribution to the physiological processes of pregnancy. Borne funds the projects of three students in her group. These students are making important discoveries about how immune cells in the lining of the uterus contribute to the success of pregnancy.

meet the team

In 2019, we made a 5-year commitment to fund reproductive immunologist, Dr Viki Male, as the principal investigator working with Professor Mark Johnson at Imperial College’s laboratories at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. A Wellcome Trust Sir Henry Dale Fellow and the recipient of a first from Cambridge, Viki has worked at Imperial College, UCL and Cambridge University and brings an unparalleled depth of understanding and experience in the field of immunology to the team.

“These students are making important discoveries about how immune cells in the lining of the uterus contribute to the success of pregnancy, but Borne’s funding means so much more: at the end of their projects, each of these students will be a newly-qualified researcher in human pregnancy, ready to continue pushing forward the frontiers of research.”

– Dr Viki Male

PhD student Emily Whettlock is working on the ways in which immune cells in the lining of the uterus may trigger labour at term and preterm, using both multiparametric flow cytometry and single cell RNA sequencing approaches.

PhD student Antonia Cuff and Clinical Research Fellow Ee Von Woon are focusing on how these cells promote placentation in early pregnancy. This is important because many problems that manifest later in pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia and some types of preterm birth, have their origins in poor early placentation.


  • These projects have been impacted by the pandemic in a number of ways. The students lost almost three months of laboratory time during the first national lockdown, and when they were allowed to return to the laboratory, capacity restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID meant that the pace of work has slowed. The team has had to find ways to address their research questions using alternative approaches, such as bioinformatics and in vitro models.
  • The coming year holds some exciting challenges for the group. As the labs return to full capacity and clinics reopen, the Borne-funded students will accelerate their data collection, aiming to make up for lost time as they come towards the end of their projects.
  • Throughout the pandemic, principal investigator Viki Male was at the forefront of the advancement of knowledge and promotion of understanding of the relationships between COVID-19 and pregnancy. She gave interviews and wrote pieces for BBC’s Women’s Hour, The British Society for Immunology, BBC’s Inside Health, and Nature magazine, amongst others.
  • In June 2021, all three of the Borne-funded students in the lab had their abstracts selected for presentation at international meetings, with Emily presenting at the Biochemical Society Early Career Life Scientists’ Virtual Symposium, and Antonia and Ee Von at the European NK Cell Symposium. This recognition is an excellent example of the positive impact that our investment can have on strengthening the early stage research base by supporting promising young scientists and clinicians.

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