Dr Karen Forbes

Dr Karen Forbes


I graduated from the University of Strathclyde with a BSc (Hons) in Immunology & Pharmacology (2001) and a PhD in Molecular Biochemistry (2005).  In 2004, I moved to the laboratory of Professor John Aplin and Professor Melissa Westwood in the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Manchester. During my time as a postdoctoral research associate, my research involved dissecting the molecular events regulating normal placental growth and development, with a particular focus on the insulin-like growth factor (IGF) signalling pathway. I was awarded a University of Manchester Stepping Stones Fellowship in 2010 and I moved to the University of Leeds in 2014 as a Lecturer in Molecular Genetics. 


  • Deputy programme lead for MSc Clinical  Embryology and ART
  • Module Manager for MSc Clinical  Embryology and ART and MSc Clinical Embryology (Distance Learning)

Research interests


Reduced (fetal growth restriction) or enhanced fetal growth (macrosomia) can not only lead to complications during pregnancy and at birth, but these conditions are also linked to the development of adulthood diseases such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. Fetal growth complications are rooted in aberrant placental development and function but currently, there are no treatments. In order to make significant progress in this area, a better understanding of the mechanisms regulating placental development is needed. My research is focused on understanding how the maternal environment (diet, growth factors, microRNAs), influences events in the placenta, leading to pregnancy complications, and to subsequent programming of the offspring for adulthood diseases. We have a programme of research spanning from understanding the basic mechanisms of disease progression, through to the development of potential novel therapeutics for prevention of these conditions.

Current Projects

  • Defining the contribution of miRNAs to altered placental and fetal growth in pregnancies complicated by maternal diabetes - In collaboration with Professor Eleanor Scott, Professor Mark Kearney, Dr Nigel Simpson (University of Leeds), Professor Susan Ozanne (University of Cambridge) and Professor Melissa Westwood  (University of Manchester)
  • Investigating the role of dietary-derived extracellular vesicles in maternal-placental messaging- In collaboration with Professors Melissa Westwood & John McLaughlin and Dr Anil Day (University of Manchester)
  • Altering placental miRNA levels to improve fetal growth in problem pregnancies - In collaboration with Dr Lynda Harris (University of Manchester)
  • miRNAs as predictors of adverse pregnancy outcomes in women experiencing reduced fetal movements - In collaboration with: Professor Alex Heazell, Dr Rebecca Jones and Dr Bernadette Baker (University of Manchester)
  • Understanding the role of miRNAs in early pregnancy loss and recurrent miscarriage - In collaboration with Dr Niamh Forde, Professor James Walker, Dr Nigel Simpson (University of Leeds), Dr Jayne Shillito, Mr Harish Bhandari (Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust).

Current lab members  

Dr Kate Timms-Postdoctoral Research Fellow 

Katy Walsh- Visiting Research Assistant  (MSci Genetics student at University of Glasgow)

Margeurite Kennedy- PhD Student  (co-supervised with Professor Eleanor Scott and Dr Nigel Simpson)

Haidee Tinnings - PhD Student  (co-supervised with Dr Niamh Forde)

Sarah Cartland - MD Student/Clinical Research Fellow (co-supervised with Professor Eleanor Scott and Dr Nigel Simpson): ‘Circulating microRNAs: novel regulators of placental development and function in pregnancies complicated by maternal diabetes.


MRC; Mason Medical Trust; Mary and Alice Smith Memorial Scholarship; University of Leeds Academic Development Fund; BBSRC DTP studentship; Society for Endocrinology Early Career Grant; Tommy's.


  • PhD Molecular Biochemistry; University of Strathclyde (2005)
  • BSc (Hons) Immunology & Pharmacology; University of Strathclyde (2001)

Professional memberships

  • Member Society for Endocrinology
  • Member UK Extracellular Vesicle Society
  • Member Society for Reproduction and Fertility
  • Member Anatomical Society
  • Member International Federation of Placenta Associations

Student education

Teaching responsibilities

  • Deputy programme lead for MSc Clinical Embryology and ART.
  • Module manager and lecturer for taught postgraduate programmes in MSc in Clinical Embryology (distance learning) and MSc Clinical Embryology and ART.  
  • Personal tutor for students undertaking the following programmes: MRes Medicine, MSc Clinical Embryology and ART, MSc in Clinical Embryology (distance learning) 
  • I am a member of the School of Medicine Taught Student Education Committee and the Student Support Committee.

Student research projects

I offer BSc, MSc, MD and PhD research projects in the following areas: reproduction, pregnancy, endocrinology, diabetes, nutrition, developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD), cell biology, cell signalling, non-coding RNAs, extracellular vesicles, molecular biology.   Please contact me to enquire about current projects on offer.  Funded PhD studentships are detailed below.

Completed Postgraduate Research Students

Kate Timms- PhD awarded 2018 ‘Examining the potential role of food-derived plant microRNAs in human placental development’ (Co-supervised with Professors Melissa Westwood and John McLaughlin and Dr Anil Day at University of Manchester)

Mohamed Elmoursi- PhD awarded 2017 'Dissecting the contribution of microRNAs to alterations in placental autophagy in pregnancies complicated by pre-eclampsia and fetal growth restriction.' (Co-supervised with Professor Valerie Speirs and Dr’s Nigel Simpson and Jens Stahlschmidt)

Bernadette Baker- PhD awarded 2016 'Folate deficiency in teenage pregnancy: Interaction between methylation status, miRNA expression and placental  dysfunction (Co-supervised with Dr Rebecca Jones, Dr Susan Greenwood and  Dr Alexander Heazell, University of Manchester)

Christopher Whittle- PhD awarded 2016 'Investigating the role of miRNAs in development of the placental vascular in normal\n pregnancy and in pregnancies complicated by maternal diabetes' ( Co-supervised with Professor Melissa Westwood and Professor John Aplin, University of Manchester). 

Lewis Rayner - MSc (with Distinction) awarded 2015: 'Does ART influence expression of key growth regulatory genes and microRNAs in the human placenta'

Michaela Wyner- MSc (with Distinction) awarded 2015: 'Does maternal diabetes influence human endometrial receptivity and embryo implantation?'

Lisa Jones - MRes (with Distinction) awarded 2013.  'Therapeutically targeting miRNAs to improve pregnancy outcomes in mouse models of fetal growth restriction' (Co-supervised with Dr Jayne Charnock, University of Manchester)

Miranda Lees- MRes (with Distinction) awarded 2013 'miRNA regulation of embryo implantation' ( Co-supervised with Professor John Aplin, University of Manchester)

Kate Timms- MRes (with Distinction) awarded 2013 'Does maternal diet influence placental miRNA expression?' (Co-supervised with Professor Melissa Westwood, University of Manchester)

Joshua Jones - MRes (with Distinction) awarded 2012 'Profiling serum miRNAs to predict adverse pregnancy outcomes'  (Co-supervised with Professor Melissa Westwood, University of Manchester)

Farkhondeh Farrokhnia- MRes (with Merit) awarded 2011 'Identifying miRNAs involved in regulating placental growth factor signalling' (Co-supervised with Professor Melissa Westwood,University of Manchester)


Current PhD Opportunities 

Defining the link between glucose, miRNAs and extracellular vesicles in pregnancies complicated by maternal diabetes.  MRC DiMeN Doctoral Training Partnership

MicroRNA evolution in placental mammals: Unravelling conservation and divergence in their regulatory mechanisms in early pregnancy in different placental mammals. White Rose BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership 

Circulating miRNAs as key regulators of placental vascular dysfunction and altered fetal growth in pregnancies complicated by maternal diabetes.  BHF 4-year PhD Programme: Cardiovascular disease and diabetes 

Research groups and institutes

  • Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine
  • Discovery and Translational Science
<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="https://medicinehealth.leeds.ac.uk/research-opportunities">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>