Professor Neil Vargesson

Professor Neil Vargesson
Professor Neil Vargesson
Professor Neil Vargesson


Chair in Developmental Biology

Accepting PhDs

Email Address
Telephone Number
+44 (0)1224 437374
Office Address

School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, Institute of Medical Sciences, Room 4.30, University of Aberdeen. Foresterhill. Aberdeen. AB25 2ZD. Scotland.

School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition


August 2023 - Lead, Theme of Molecular and Cellular Function in the Institute of Medical Sciences

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November 2022 - Section Lead, Developmental Biology (part of the Theme of Molecular and Cellular Function) in the Institute of Medical Sciences.

March 2021 - Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

March 2021 ILM Level 5 Certificate in Leadership and Management, University of Aberdeen.

August 2019 Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology

August 2018 Professor in Developmental Biology (Personal Chair), School of Medicine, Medical Sciences & Nutrition, University of Aberdeen.

August 2013  Senior Lecturer, School of Medicine, Medical Sciences & Nutrition, University of Aberdeen.

August 2007   Lecturer, School of Medical Sciences, University of Aberdeen.

2006 - Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA)

2005 - CASLAT (Cerificate of Advanced Study in Learning and Teaching), Imperial College

2004 - 2007    Lecturer. NHLI Division, Faculty of Medicine. Imperial College London.

2001 - 2003    Postdoctoral Fellow. Cancer Research UK, London. UK, with Dr Julian Lewis studying zebrafish gut development.

1998 - 2001    Postdoctoral Fellow. Department of Genetics and Development, Columbia University, New York. USA, with Dr Ed Laufer studying TGFbeta signalling in chick limb development (funded by HFPSO Long-Term Fellowship)

1998 - Ph.D (Developmental Biology), University College London (with Profs Lewis Wolpert and Cheryll Tickle)

1994 - B.Sc. (Hons) Human Biology, Kings College London

1990 - BTEC Higher National Certificate in Applied Biology, Luton College of HE (now University of Bedfordshire).

1988 - BTEC Ordinary National Certificate in Science, Luton College of HE (now University of Bedfordshire)


  • ILM Level 5 Certificate Leadership and Management 
    2021 - University of Aberdeen 
  • CASLAT Learning and Teaching 
    2006 - Imperial College London 
    CASLAT - Certificate of Advanced Study in Learning and Teaching
  • Ph.D Developmental Biology 
    1998 - University College London 
    PhD Supervisors: Prof Lewis Wolpert and Prof Cheryll Tickle.
  • BSc (Hons) Human Biology 
    1994 - Kings College London 

Memberships and Affiliations

Internal Memberships

Elected Member, University Senate (2008-2013) (2016-2020) (2020-2024)

Senate Assessor to University Court (2009-2013) (2019-present)

Member, Governance and Nominations Committee (reports to University Court; 2012-2013)

Member, School Ethical Review Board (formerly CERB) (2013 - 2021)

Member, Honorary Degrees Committee (reports to Senate) (2017 - 2020)

Member, Senate Business Committee (2017 - present)

Member, Policy and Resources Committee (PaRC) (reports to Court) (2019-2022)

Member, Estates Committee (reports to PaRC) (2019 - 2022)

Member, IMS Athena SWAN Team for Bronze Award (2015 - 2019)

Member, IMS Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Group (2019 - 2021)

Member, Workload Planning Review Group and Subgroup (2020 - present)

Member, Sustainability Development Committee (reports to PaRC) (2020 - 2022)

Member, Pensions Advisory Committee (reports to Court) (2020 - 2022)

Member, School Education Steering Committee (2020 - 2022)

Member, School Product (Teaching) Development and Recruitment Group (2021 - 2022)

Member, Commercialisation Committee (reports to Court) (2022 - 2023)

Member, Finance and Resources Committee (reports to Court) (2023 - present)


External Memberships

-Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh - since March 2021

-Fellow, Royal Society of Biology - since 2019

-Fellow, Higher Education Academy - since 2006


Editorial Board Work:

-Co-Editor in Chief, Journal of Anatomy (2022 - present)

-Editorial Board Member, Reproductive Toxicology (2015 - present).

-Editorial Board Member, Integrative Physiology, a speciality of Frontiers in Physiology (2017 - 2020)

-Editorial Board Member, Current Research in Toxicology (2019 - present)

-Editorial Board Member, Frontiers in Toxicology (Developmental & Toxicology Section) (2022 - present)

-Guest Editor for a Special Issue of Reproductive Toxicology entitled 'Developmental Angiogenesis'. Published June, 2017.


Grant Panels:

-Member, Sarcoma UK Research Advisory Committee (2016-2019) - which oversees Grant Application reviewing and funding.

-Member, NC3R, Training Fellowship Panel (2019 - 2022)

-Member, NC3R, PhD Studentship Panel (2023 - present)

-Member, NC3R CRACK-IT Challenge 45 Panel (2023 - present)

-Member, NIHR, Round 37 Review Panel (2023 - present)


External Committees:

-Co-Chair, HESI Targeted Protein Degrader Safety Committee - Cereblon-related Safety Challenges Working Group - (2023 - present)

-Member, Royal Society of Edinburgh Public Engagement Committee (2021 - present)

-Convenor and Member, Royal Society of Edinburgh D1 Sectional Committee (2022 - present)

-Member, Royal Society of Edinburgh, Medals Committee (2022 - present)

-Member, Multidisciplinary Committee, Canadian Thalidomide Survivors Support Programme (2021 - present).


International Conference Organising:

-Organiser, 14th International Conference on Limb Development and Regeneration to be held at the University of Edinburgh between July 23-26, 2017.

-Co-Organiser, Lewis Wolpert Memorial Symposium. UCL, London. 13-14 Sept 2022.


External Teaching roles:

-Visiting Professor, University of Milan, Italy - Jan/Feb 2021

-Visiting Professor, University of Edinburgh, UK, Nov 2022

-External Examiner, Kings College London - Oct 2021 - present


Professional Memberships:

-Member, British Society for Developmental Biology - since 1994

-Member, Anatomical Society - since 2006



-Writer for '' - since 2015 - 



Latest Publications

View My Publications

Prizes and Awards

Winner, 2017 University of Aberdeen Principal's Prize for Public Engagement with Research


Research Overview

Professor Neil Vargesson is a developmental biologist interested in understanding how embryos form normally and determining how some drugs cause birth differences, most notably Thalidomide. He has published widely in these areas. He did his PhD on chick limb development in the labs of Prof Lewis Wolpert and Prof Cheryll Tickle at UCL, London. He carried out a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr Ed Laufer at Columbia University in New York , USA on chick limb vascular development before returning to London and competing a postdoctoral fellowship on zebrafish gut development with Dr Julian Lewis at Cancer Research UK. He also has an interest in public engagement and his expertise on drug-induced birth differences has led to advisory roles to many international Governments and Agencies, including the WHO, as well as advising media, the public, lawyers and featuring in documentaries on Thalidomide and Primodos. He currently advises the Canadian and Australian Governments on applications from alleged Thalidomide survivors for recognition and compensation. He also has advised the Maltese Government on establishing a Thalidomide compensation scheme and has advised Thalidomide survivor networks from around the world. His research and expertise on the hormone pregnancy test, Primodos, has helped contribute to UK and German Government reviews of the safety of Primodos and hormone pregnancy tests.

Research in the lab is focused on determining the mechanisms underlying thalidomide-induced teratogenesis; identifying non-teratogenic forms of thalidomide; studying the actions of Primodos (was used as a hormone pregnancy test and alleged to have caused birth defects); screening drugs to identify their function/s and action/s; studying how blood vessels are involved in controlling normal and abnormal limb development; studying the role of the YAP signaling pathway in embryonic development; using the chicken embryo to produce a model of Clubfoot to understand how this common birth anomaly comes about; and understanding how birth defects come about in general.

My research interests have also led to requests for scientific advice from the World Health Organisation, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the Canadian Parliament, the Senate of Australia. I also sit on the Multi-Disciplinary Committee of the Canadian Thalidomide Survivors Support Program, assessing Applications seeking recognition as a Thalidomide survivor. My recent research on Primodos, helped contribute to the establishment of an Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review in 2018, which i contributed to and which concluded Primodos survivors deserve an apology and compensation in July 2020.


For an overview of the Impact of my research on Thalidomide, please see this webpage and podcasts:

Podcast for US based 'Inside Out Quality' in Feb 2021.

Podcast interview for the Journal of Hand Surgery (European Vol) in Sept 2023.


For an overview of the history of Primodos, how it worked, the allegations about its safety and why its still relevant to day, have a listen to this Podcast interview i gave for US based 'Inside Out Quality' in Sept 2021.

Research Areas

Accepting PhDs

I am currently accepting PhDs in Biomedical Sciences.

Please get in touch if you would like to discuss your research ideas further.

Email Me

Biomedical Sciences

Accepting PhDs

Research Specialisms

  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology
  • Toxicology
  • Genetics

Our research specialisms are based on the Higher Education Classification of Subjects (HECoS) which is HESA open data, published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.

Current Research


Primodos was used as a hormone pregnancy test between 1958-1978. It is alleged to have caused birth defects in children exposed to the drug when their mother was trying to confirm they were pregnant. Conflicting research results was obtained from studies in the 1970s and 1980s. We have investigated the actions of the components of the drug in Zebrafish embryos and show Primodos can harm zebrafish embryos.

Our Primodos paper was published in 'Scientific Reports' on 13 Feb 2018 and received widespread media coverage (Sky News, BBC, ITV, newspapers and online media) Direct link to paper:

An example of the media coverage:

Some of the Lab's work (prior to publication) looking at the components of Primodos in zebrafish embryos was featured in a Sky News Documentary on 21 March 2017 entitled: Primodos: The Secret Drug Scandal. The full documentary can be seen at:

A follow up Sky Documentary in August 2020 featured new research findings from the lab entitled: "Bitter Pill: Primodos". the full documentary can be seen at:



Our research was discussed in the Houses of Parliament in Feb 2018 and helped contribute to an Independent Medicines and Medical Safety Devices Safety Review in 2018. The Review concluded that Primodos survivors should receive apologies and compensation in July 2020 and received widespread media coverage (nationally and internationally) eg:



We have demonstrated (Therapontos et al., 2009) how thalidomide can cause limb malformations. The drug was used as a non-addictive, non-barbiturate sedative and was also prescribed to pregnant women suffering from morning-sickness (typically, but not exclusively, between weeks 5-10). Tragically over 10000 children were born with severe birth defects, notably, and commonly, limb malformations.

Using analogs and metabolic byproducts of the drug, we showed that the antiangiogenic action of the drug causes limb defects, through preventing blood vessel migration into the developing limb bud. We further showed how the drug exerts its antiangiogenic effect, through preventing endothelial cell proliferation and migration and thus, preventing vessel tube networks from forming. At the time the limb forms (which in humans is around 5-8 weeks) it has a highly changeable vessel pattern whereas the rest of the body has a stable vascular network. Thalidomide therefore prevents new vessel outgrowth, which then causes an increase in cell death and loss of limb signalling pathways, stopping limb formation.


Therapontos C, Erskine L, Gardner ER, Figg WD, Vargesson, N. (2009). Thalidomide induces limb defects by preventing angiogenic outgrowth during early limb formation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci USA. 106, 8573-8578. DOI:10.1073/pnas.0o01505106.  

Our worked received national and international interest. Including interviews on BBC TV, ITV and in a large number of newspapers, including The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Scotsman, The Press & Journal, The Sunday Times, The New York Times (twice), Nature News, several national and international Radio stations including BBC Radio 4 'The Material World', BBC Radio 4 'The Today Programme', The Naked Scientists (twice), German Public Radio and the US National Public Radio Show 'The Diane Rehm Show' ( )


Making safer Thalidomide alternatives:

We are also interested in identifying thalidomide alternatives that retain the clinical benefits of the drug (to treat Leprosy and Multiple Myeloma) with lessened or no side-effect (eg: birth defect, peripheral neuropathy). To this end we have compared the effects of Thalidomide with its structural analogs, Lenalidomide and Pomalidomide. We demonstrated that the minor structural changes in Pomalidomide make this compound more anti-inflammatory (and not teratogenic in chicken and zebrafish embryos) at lower concentrations than Thalidomide and Lenalidomide (Mahony et al., 2013). We have also screened fluorinated thalidomide analogs & demonstrated differences in analog activities (Beedie et al., 2015). These findings validate making structural changes to Thalidomide to try to find safer alternatives (Beedie et al 2016). Some of these analogs have been patented.


Beedie SL, Peer CJ, Pisle S, Gardner ER, Mahony C, Barnett S, Ambrozak A, Gütschow M, Chau CH, Vargesson N, Figg WD. (2015). Anticancer properties of a novel class of tetrafluorinated thalidomide analogues. Mol Cancer Ther 14:2228-2237. doi: 10.1158/1535-7163.MCT-15-0320.

Beedie SL, Rore HM, Barnett S, Chau CH, Luo W, Greig NH, Figg WD, Vargesson N. (2016). In vivo screening and discovery of novel candidate thalidomide analogs in the zebrafish and chicken embryo models systems. Oncotarget. 2016 May 31;7(22):33237-45. doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.8909.

Vargesson N, Hooper G, Giddins G, Hunter A, Stirling P, Lam W. (2023). Thalidomide upper limb embryopathy - pathogenesis, past and present management and future considerations. J Hand Surg Eur Vol. 48(8):699-709.  doi: 10.1177/17531934231177425.



My research has led to requests to advise the WHO and several international Governments. Including Canada and Australia who have since apologised to thalidomide survivors and offered survivors compensation packages. Moreover my research work has led to meeting thalidomide victims from all over the world and discussing the mechanism of the drugs action. My expertise has led to invitation for membership of the Multi-Disciplinary Committee of the Canadian Thalidomide Survivors Support Program, reviewing applications for recognition as a Thalidomide survivor.

Past Research

Some images of my Thalidomide work is featured in a Fine Art Exhibition (and subsequent Book) by the renowned artist, Taryn Simon. The Exhibition is entitled: ‘A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters’ and toured the world throughout 2011 and 2012.




Knowledge Exchange

-Public Engagement: Advisory Roles and Shaping Government Policy

Advisor, World Health Organisation 'Diagnostic Criteria and Mechanisms of Action of Thalidomide' - Feb 2014.  Meeting report with recommendations:

Advisor, Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) - Oct 2016 and Aug 2017. Discussing our research on Primodos effects upon embryonic development.

Advisor, Canadian Parliament, Standing Committee on Health, 'Thalidomide survivors compensation programme' - May 2017.

Advisor, All Party Parliamentary Group on Primodos and Hormone Pregnancy Tests - 2017, 2018, 2019

Advisor, European Medicines Agency on use of zebrafish in research and for use in screening human sex hormones - July 17, 2018.

Advisor, Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review (chaired by Baroness Cumberlege) - on my groups Primodos research and latest findings, as part of inquiry looking at Primodos safety. Nov 2018. My groups work features in the Final Report, that recommended an apology and compensation to survivors.

Advisor, Senate of Australia - discussing thalidomide and damage it caused to a Senate Committee set up to look at Thalidomide and potential compensation - Jan 2019. Their Final Report in March 2019 made many recommendations including compensation, establishment of a compensation and recognition scheme and establishment of learning tools (see below).

Advisor, Royal College of Australasian Physicians - following Senate of Australia Thalidomide Committee conclusions (Mar 2019) recommending an apology and compensation should be given to thalidomide survivors, also recommended producing online tools and information about thalidomide - which was overseen by Royal College of Australasian Physicians. I was invited to produce an online educational tool about thalidomide - June 2019 - Jan 2020. Published online in Aug 2020.

Member, Canadian Thalidomide Survivors Support Program - Multi-Disciplinary Committee - reviewing applications seeking recognition and compensation as a Thalidomide survivor. March 2021 - present.


-For an overview of the Impact of my research on Thalidomide, please see this webpage:


-Public Engagement: Media

-Published 6 articles for '' - on thalidomide, primodos, covid-19, clusters of children with rare limb malformations and zika virus. 

-Since 2009, been interviewed regularly about my groups thalidomide research and about our primodos research for television including Sky News, BBC News, STV News and interviewed for multiple newspaper articles including The New York Times, The Independent, Daily Mail, Sunday Times, The Times, The Scotsman, British Medical Journal and numerous internet news sites.


-Interviewed and featured in two Sky Documentaries about Primodos:

1. Sky News documentary (also aired on Sky Atlantic) - aired in 2017 - 'Primodos: The Secret Drug Scandal' - 

2. Sky Documentary (aired on Sky Documentaries and Sky News) - aired in 2020 - 'Bitter Pill:Primodos' -


I have also been interviewed by the media on numerous occasions to comment on news stories including Thalidomide (eg: ), Primodos (eg: ;; Sky News Live interview 21 March, 2017) and also on Epilim. Interviewed by Sky News Live (26 Sept, 2017) to discuss the epilepsy drug, Epilim, and how it caused damage to babies born to epileptic mothers, and the new European Medicines Agency inquiry into a lack of information/warnings being given to expectant mum's.

For example, i was invited to write an article for 'The Scotsman' regarding the 60th anniversary of the original withdrawal of thalidomide due to it causing birth defects:


I have also been interviewed for several Podcasts about my groups research:

1. Thalidomide - including how it works, how survivors were treated & managed in the past & today, challenges facing survivors & how understanding Thalidomide might help treat other limb syndromes. For more detail listen to this Podcast interview i gave for Journal of Hand Surgery European Volume website in Sept 2023.

2. Thalidomide - including how it works, how it caused birth defect and how we can make it safe, listen to this Podcast interview i gave for 'Inside Out Quality' in Feb 2021.

3. Primodos, how it worked, the allegations about its safety and why its still relevant to day, listen to this Podcast interview i gave for 'Inside Out Quality' in Sept 2021.

4. Podcast discussing Drug Safety Research and Communication for Explorathon'21 - where i discuss Thalidomide and Primodos research and drug safety.


Awards for Public Engagement

Winner, 2017 Principal's Prize for Public Engagement with Research - Senior Award

Funding and Grants

2015-2017 PI, Sarcoma UK Project Grant

2012-2016 PI, Wellcome Trust/NIH funded PhD Scholar


Teaching Responsibilities


Degree Programme Co-ordinator - BSc (Hons) Human Embryology and Developmental Biology


Course Co-ordinator - DB3006 Principles of Developmental and Reproductive Biology

Course Co-ordinator - DB4002 Evolution and Development

Teach on SM2001, SM2501, SM3002, DB3006, DB3804, DB4002,  PA4005



Co-Degree Programme Co-ordinator - MSc Reproductive and Developmental Biology


Course Co-ordinator - MB5026 Principles of Reproductive Biology (Masters Level course).

Teach on MB5026, MB5524.


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Books and Reports

Chapters in Books, Reports and Conference Proceedings

Contributions to Journals

Contributions to Specialist Publications