Donna Santillan, PhD

Donna Santillan, PhDAssociate Director for Workforce Development

Research Assistant Professor, Obstetrics and Gynecology - Reproductive Science Research

Personal statement

Donna Santillan is directing the Early Scholars Certificate in Clinical and Translational Science program and leading the Introduction to Translational Research course. This course gives undergraduate students exposure to topics related to moving science between the bench and the bedside. It covers principles related to Epidemiology, Human Subjects Research, Clinical Trials, and career paths in translational research.

Research interests

Donna Santillan, PhD is a Molecular Biologist in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology with particular interests in biorepositories, maternal diseases during pregnancy, and education. She is the Director of the Women’s Health Tissue Repository. This biorepository includes well annotated samples with corresponding clinical information and significantly increases our capacity to move research between bench and bedside. She currently has a very productive lab that performs clinical and translational studies centered on understanding effects of maternal exposures in pregnancy on long-term maternal and child health. Dr. Santillan is the co-Director of the Reproductive Sciences Research Division in Obstetrics & Gynecology, co-director of OB/GYN resident research, and has served as a mentor for many undergraduate and graduate students, as well as for residents and fellows.


  • Chemistry BS – Loyola University, 1998
  • History BA – Loyola University, 1998
  • Molecular Biology PhD – Loyola University Biomedical Sciences Program, Maywood, 2001
  • Perinatal Biology Postdoctoral  – University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, 2009


  • Fellow, Women in Science Encouraging Research (W.I.S.E.R.), Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL, (1996)
  • Science teacher, Nazareth Academy, LaGrange Park, IL, (1998-1999)
  • Graduate student, Loyola University, Chicago, IL (1999-2005)
  • Research Assistant, Loyola University Medical Center, Maywood, IL (20005-2006)
  • Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics (2006-2009)
  • Research Scientist, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics (2009-2010)
  • Research Assistant Professor, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics (2010-present)
  • Director, Women’s Health Tissue Repository, Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics (2010-present)
  • Co-Director, Resident Research in Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics (2011-present)
  • Co-Director, Reproductive Sciences Research Division, Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics (2013-present)
  • Research Associate Professor, Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics (2018-present)

Other experience

  • Grant reviewer, NIH Special Emphasis Panel ZRG1 VH D(58)R (2009)
  • Principal Investigator, Maternal-Fetal Tissue Bank, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology (2010-present)
  • Principal Investigator, Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility Tissue Bank, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology (2012-present)
  • Principal Investigator, Well Woman Tissue Bank, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology (2012-present)
  • Reviewer, Proceedings in Obstetrics & Gynecology (2010-present)
  • Member, Executive Committee, Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (2013-present)
  • Grant reviewer, NIH NIEHS Special Emphasis Panel 2015/05 ZES1 LKB-D C (2015)
  • Member, Residency Education Committee, Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (2015-present)
  • Grant reviewer, NIH NIEHS Special Emphasis Panel 2016/05ZES1LKB-J(K2) 1 (2016)
  • Reviewer, Journal of Biorepository Science for Applied Medicine (2016-present)

Professional memberships

  • Member, Global Pregnancy Collaboration (CoLab) (2014)
  • Editorial Board Member, Proceedings in Obstetrics and Gynecology (2015-present)
  • American Heart Association, Regular Member (2015-present)
  • American Physiological Society, Regular Member (2016-present)
  • Member, Iowa Perinatal Health Research Collaborative (2017-present)


  • Loyola University Chicago Presidential Scholarship (1994-1998)
  • Loyola University Chicago Student Leadership Scholarship (1996-1998)
  • Fellow, Women in Science Encouraging Research (WISER) (1996)
  • Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit Honor Society (Inducted 1996)
  • Golden Key National Honor Society (Inducted 1996)
  • Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society, Chapter President 1997 (Inducted 1996)
  • Loyola University Graduate Assistantship (1999-2005)
  • Experimental Immunology Predoctoral Training Grant NIH T32 AI07508 (2002-2003)
  • Experimental Immunology Predoctoral Training Grant NIH T32 AI07508 (2004-2005)
  • Loyola University Chicago Dissertation of the Year in the Sciences (2006)
  • Experimental Immunology Postdoctoral Training Grant T32 AI07260-21 (2007-2009)
  • University of Iowa Research Foundation Inventor Award (2012)
  • Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine Research Excellence (2013)
  • Nominee, Iowa Women of Innovation Rising Star Award (2013, 2014)
  • Clinical Research Achievement Semi-Finalist – Clinical Research Forum Annual Meeting (2015)
  • AFHRE Travel Award for Patient-Oriented or Clinical Research in Hypertension Sponsored by the AHA Council on Hypertension and the American Foundation for Hypertension Research and Education (2016)

Contribution to Science

Women’s Health Tissue Repository

The main focus of my research is improving maternal health in pregnancy.  In order to maximize our research potential, I co-founded and currently direct the Women’s Health Tissue Repository at the University of Iowa. This biorepository collects longitudinal, deeply clinically annotated maternal blood (plasma and viable cells) and urine samples throughout pregnancy as well as placental and cord blood (plasma, serum, and viable cells) samples at delivery according to standard operating protocols.  Because participants are enrolled early in pregnancy, we have samples before there is clinical evidence of disease. These samples are highly valuable in identifying early disease processes and biomarkers. This resource has provided a unique opportunity to collaborate with many investigators as well as our participation in the Global CoLaboratory. 

  • Santillan MK, Leslie KK, Hamilton WS, Boese BJ, Ahuja M, Hunter SK, Santillan DA.: Collection of a lifetime: A practical approach to developing a longitudinal collection of women’s healthcare biological samples. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 179:94-99, 2014.  PMCID: PMC4148073
  • Taylor J, Conklin J, Hunter SK, Empey R, Tyler EM, Christensen A, Talcott KM, Ballas ZK, Santillan DA, Santillan MK.  Defining normal IgG changes throughout pregnancy. Proc Obstet Gynecol. 2013; 3(2):Article 8 [2 p.]. Available from: http//
  • Kitzman JO, Snyder MW, Ventura M, Lewis AP, Qiu R, Simmons LE, Gammill HS, Rubens CE, Santillan DA, Murray JC, Tabor HK, Bamshad MJ, Eichler EE, and Shendure J.  Noninvasive whole-genome sequencing of a human fetus.  Sci Transl Med.  4:137ra76, 2012.  PMCID: PMC3379884
  • Scroggins SM, Santillan DA, Lund JM, Sandgren, JA, Krotz LK, Hamilton WS, Devor EJ, Davis HA, Pierce GL, Gibson-Corley KN, Sigmund Cd, Grobe JL, Santillan MK. Elevated Vasopressin in Pregnant Mice InducesT-helper subset alterations consistent with human preeclampsia. Clinical Science, 132(3):419-436, 2018 PMCID: PMC5947858 

Prediction and prevention of maternal health diseases during pregnancy

I am very interested in the prediction and prevention of maternal health diseases during pregnancy. We have utilized microsphere technology to reduce Phenylalanine in a mouse model of Phenylketonuria (PKU) with the overall goal of preventing Maternal PKU Syndrome. In addition, my lab has worked to utilize microsphere technology to develop a novel vaccine from Group B Streptococci (GBS) to prevent the development of sepsis in the newborn and to prevent the overuse of antibiotics. We are also currently performing a large review of prenatal care and deliveries at the University of Iowa for adherence to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for screening and treating for GBS in pregnancy.  As part of predicting adverse outcomes, I have collaborated on numerous projects to establish normative concentrations of proteins in pregnancy as well as to identify biomarkers of disease.

  • Santillan DA, Santillan M, and Hunter SK.  Cell Encapsulation Technology as a Useful Non-Dietary Therapy for Maternal Phenylketonuria.  Am J Obstet Gynecol.  201:289.e1-6, 2009.  PMID: 19631922 PMCID: N/A​
  • Santillan DA, Rai KK, Santillan MK, Krishnamachari Y, Salem AK, and Hunter SK.  Efficacy of Polymeric Encapsulated C5a peptidase-based Group B Streptococci Vaccines in a Murine Model.  Am J Obstet Gynecol.  205:249.e1-8, 2011. PMCID: PMC3213321​
  • Stegmann B, Santillan M, Santillan DA, Smith E, VanVoorhis B, and Schultz K.  Anti- Müllerian Hormone concentration levels in maternal plasma during the first, second and third trimester of pregnancy.  Proc Obstet Gynecol. 2012 ;2(3):Article 2 [ 2 p]. Available from:\​
  • Stilley JA, Guan R, Santillan DA, Mitchell BF, Lamping KG, Segaloff DL. Differential Regulation of Human and Mouse Myometrial Contractile Activity by FSH as a Function of FSH Receptor Density, BIOLREPROD. 2016 August;95(2). PMID:27335068. doi: 10.1095/biolreprod.116.141648.  PMCID: PMC5029472

Early signaling cascades in preeclampsia

More specifically, I have been interested in the early signaling cascades in preeclampsia, a hypertensive disorder in pregnancy which has no cure except delivery. Over 76,000 women die each year due to preeclampsia and 500,000 babies die each year from its complications. I am particularly interested in understanding the early pathophysiology of the preeclampsia, the identification of biomarkers, and the development of new therapeutics.  Our lab recently identified a new biomarker, copeptin, which is significantly elevated as early as the 6th week of gestation in women who will go on to develop preeclampsia.  Using this information, we developed a new murine model of preeclampsia that recapitulates the hallmarks of human preeclampsia: pregnancy-specific hypertension in the latter half of pregnancy, glomerular endotheliosis, protein in urine, and intrauterine growth restriction.  We are also continuing to study the effects of preeclampsia on the child as it develops through the use of human samples, cell lines, and mouse models.

  • Santillan DA, Hamilton W, Christenson A, Talcott K, Gravatt L, Santillan M, and Hunter S.  The Effects of Preeclampsia on Signaling to Hematopoietic Progenitor Cells.  Proc Obstet Gynecol.  2013; 3(1): Article 3 [11 p.]. Available from: http//  PMCID: N/A​
  • Santillan M, Santillan DA, Scroggins SM, Min J, Sandgren J, Pearson N, Leslie KK, Hunter SK,  Zamba G, Gibson-Corley KJ, Grobe JL.: Vasopressin in Preeclampsia: a novel very early human pregnancy biomarker and clinically relevant mouse model. Hypertension 64(4):852-859, 2014.  PMCID: PMC4162750​
  • Sandgren JA, Deng G, Linggonegoro DW, Scroggins SM, Perschbacher KJ, Nair AR, Nishimura TE, Zhang SY, Agbor LN, Wu J, Keen HL, Naber MC, Pearson NA, Zimmerman KA, Weiss RM, Bowdler NC, Usachev YM, Santillan DA, Potthoff MJ, Pierce GL, Gibson-Corely KN, Sigmund CD, Santillan MK, Grobe JL. Arginine vasopressin infusion is sufficient to model clinical features of preeclampsia in mice.  JCI Insight. 3(19):e99403, 2018 Epub ahead of print.
  • PCT International Application No. PCT/US2014/015631 Title: "Therapeutic Strategies for the Treatment of Preeclampsia" -  Inventor(s):  Grobe JL, Santillan MK, Santillan DA; UIRF Ref. No.:   13056, Q&B Ref. No.:   139766.00018   Issued April 2018

Prevention and identification of adverse outcomes for children

In addition to biomarkers of maternal disease in pregnancy, I am also interested in the prevention and identification of adverse outcomes for the child. To this end, I have participated in outcomes research using multi-state databases and in retrospective cohort studies.  This research is also complemented by translational research to identify fetal DNA sequences in maternal blood samples during pregnancy.

  • Santillan MK, Santillan DA, Fleener D, Stegmann B, Zamba G, Hunter S, Yankowitz J. Single Umbilical Artery: Does Side Matter?, Fetal Diagn Ther. 2012 June 20. PMID:22678110 PMCID: N/​
  • Kyser K, Lu X, Santillan DA, Santillan MK, Hunter S, Cahill AG, Cram P. The Association Between Hospital Obstetrical Volume and Maternal Postpartum Complications, Am J Obstet Gynecol. 204:42.e1-17, 2012. PMID:22727347; PMCID PMC4362705​
  • Kyser KL, Lu X, Santillan DA, Santillan M, Caughey AB, Wilson MC, Cram P.: Forceps Delivery Volumes in Teaching and Non-Teaching Hospitals: Are Volumes Sufficient for Acquisition and Maintenance of Competence?, Academic Medicine. 1(89):71-6, 2014. PMID:24280847; PMCID: PMC4317267
  • Snyder MW, Simmons LE, Kitzman JO, Santillan DA, Santillan MK, Gammill HS, Shendure J. Noninvasive fetal genome sequencing: a primer., Prenat Diagn. 33(6):547-54, 2013. PMCID: PMC3727971

Published works

My Bibliography

Ongoing research support

  • Preeclampsia

American Heart Association Strategically Focused Research Network

4/1/15 – 4/1/19

Role: Co-Investigator

Center Director: Sigmund C

  • Pregnancy-associated microRNAs in plasma as predictors of gestational diabetes

7/1/17 – 6/30/19

National Institutes of Health


PI: Bao, Wei

Role: Investigator

  • Gene expression changes in response to Aspirin for the Prevention of Preeclampsia

Swift Family Foundation

10/1/17 – 10/1/18

Role: PI

  • Longitudinal study of maternal exposure to BPA substitutes during pregnancy in relation to offspring birth weight               

EHSRC Pilot Grant


Role: Co-Investigator

PI: Buyun Liu, PhD, Department of Epidemiology, University of Iowa

Completed research support

  • Swift Family Foundation Seed Grant

9/1/16 – 9/1/17

Placenta Specific 1 in Preeclamptic Placentas

Role: Co-Investigator

In this project, we are studying how poor placental health alters the expression of several genes.

  • University of Iowa Research Foundation

10/30/15 – 6/30/2017

“Advancing Copeptin as a Biomarker of Preeclampsia”

Role: PI

  • UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination

3/1/16 – 2/28/1

“Exposure to Environmental obseogen tributyltin during pregnancy in association with maternal obesity and gestational weight gain”

Role: Co-Investigator

PI: Wei Bao, PhD

  • Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center

9/1/16 – 9/1/17

“Nontraditional glycemic markers in early pregnancy as predictors of gestational diabetes”

PI: Wei Bao, PhD

Role: Co-Investigator

  • College of Nursing Research Dean’s Award

12/1/14 – 9/1/1

“Promotion of Breastfeeding and Prevention of Dehydration

In this study, the Maternal Fetal Tissue Bank will be recruiting patients to the study and performing lab assays to determine the hydration status of the mother and newborn.

Role: Co-Investigator

PI: P. Mulder

  • University of Iowa Center for Hypertension

1/1/15 – 7/30/201

“Activity in Pregnancy”

Role: Co-PI with M. Santillan, P. Polgreen, L. Polgreen

  • Office of the Vice President for Research & Economic Development

4/1/15 – 5/31/16

“Development of Preeclamptic Pedigree Resource”

Role: PI

  • 14IRG18710013

1/1/14 - 12/31/15

“Vasopressin as an early-pregnancy initiator of preeclampsia”

American Heart Association

Role: Co-Investigator

PI: J. Grobe​