Emma Rawlins

Senior group leader

Research summary

Stem and progenitor cells in the mammalian lung

How do stem cells build and maintain the lung? The complicated three-dimensional structure of our lungs is essential for respiration and host defence. Building this structure relies on the correct sequence of division and differentiation events by lung progenitor cells, which also maintain the slowly turning-over airway epithelium in the adult. How is the production of different cell types controlled in embryonic development and adult maintenance?
We apply mouse genetics, live imaging, single-cell molecular analysis and mathematical modelling to understand lung stem cells, with a longer-term aim of directing endogenous lung cells to repair, or regenerate, diseased tissue.

Expand summary

In the adult lung we focus on the cellular mechanisms that maintain stem cell quiescence at steady-state, but allow a rapid repair response when needed. In the embryonic lung we study a population of multipotent progenitors that undergo steroid-induced changes in competence during development.

In the embryo, we have recently switched our focus to normal human lung development, primarily using an organoid system that we developed. We combine the analysis of fresh human embryonic tissue with gene-targeting in the organoids, to determine the molecular and cellular mechanisms of normal human lung development. This will provide insights into conditions related to premature birth and into the possibility of therapeutic lung regeneration. 

Rawlins research image Airway epithelium in developing human lung

How does the lung build itself? In this 17-weeks-gestation human embryonic lung, the differentiating airway epithelium has been stained to visualise mRNA. Differentiating secretory cells (cyan) and ciliated cells (red) are visible. Cell nuclei in blue. (Credit: Dr Kyungtae Lim.)

Emma Rawlins colour portrait

Selected publications

  • Sun D et al. (2021) A functional genetic toolbox for human tissue-derived organoids. Elife 10: e67886 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.67886. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.67886.

    October 6, 2021

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  • Lim K et al.(2021) Acquisition of alveolar fate and differentiation competence by human fetal lung epithelial progenitor cells. bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.06.30.450501.

    June 30, 2021

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  • Schiller HB et al. (2019) The Human Lung Cell Atlas: A High-Resolution Reference Map of the Human Lung in Health and Disease. Am J Respir Cell Mol Biol 61(1):31-41. DOI: 10.1165/rcmb.2018-0416tr.

    July 1, 2019

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  • Nikolić M et al. (2018) Human lung development: recent progress and new challenges. Development 145: dev163485. DOI: 10.1242/dev.163485.

    August 15, 2018

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  • Nikolić M et al. (2017) Human embryonic lung epithelial tips are multipotent progenitors that can be expanded in vitro as long-term self-renewing organoids. Elife 6: e26575. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.26575.

    June 30, 2017

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  • Balasooriya GI et al. (2016) An FGFR1-SPRY2 Signaling Axis Limits Basal Cell Proliferation in the Steady-State Airway Epithelium. Dev Cell 37: 85–97. DOI: 10.1016/j.devcel.2016.03.001.

    April 4, 2016

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Dr Emma Rawlins PhD
MRC Senior Non-Clinical Fellow, Member of the University Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience

Emma Rawlins obtained her PhD in developmental biology from the University of Edinburgh in 2002. She performed postdoctoral work with Prof Brigid Hogan at Duke University in 2004–2009 where she identified stem cell populations in the developing, homeostatic and repairing mouse lungs.

In 2009 she started her lab at the Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge and in 2020 was promoted to senior Group Leader. Emma is a member of the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience. Her lab works on lung stem and progenitor cell biology, combining innovative human organoid models with mouse genetics.

Notable achievements and honours

  • 2022
    British Society for Developmental Biology Cheryll Tickle Award
  • 2017
    MRC Senior Non-Clinical Fellowship
  • 2012
    MRC Centenary Award
  • 2011
    March of Dimes Basil O’Connor Award
  • 2010
    EuroSyStem Innovative Project award
  • 2009
    MRC Career Development Fellowship
  • 2007
    Parker B Francis Postdoctoral Fellowship in Pulmonary Research
  • 2002
    Wellcome Trust Prize Fellowship

Research group

  • Dr Ana Lucia Cabriales Torrijos

    Research Associate

  • Ziqi Dong

    PhD Student

  • Chloe Felton

    Part II Student

  • Dr Peng He


  • Tessa Hughes

    PhD Student

  • Dr Quitz Jeng

    Research Associate

  • Florence Leroy

    Lab Administrator

  • Dr Kyungtae Lim

    Research Associate

  • Shuyu Liu

  • Giovanna Mantica

    PhD Rotation project

  • Dr Vishal Menon

    Research Associate

  • Dr John Russell

    Research Associate

  • Maya Slee

    Part II Student

  • Vanesa Sokleva

    PhD Student

  • Dawei Sun

    Research Assistant

  • Dr Hannah Woodcock