Investigator Spotlight: November 2015
David Leslie, PhD
Dr. Leslie is a professor and Diabetes Center Lead at the Blizard Institute at the University of London. Dr. Leslie joined nPOD in 2010.
- Tell us about your education and background – where are you from, where did you go to school?
I was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland to an Anglo-Irish family. I left Ireland to study medicine at Imperial College in London.
- Where do you currently work and what is your position? What does a “day in the life” look like for you?
I am a consultant physician at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London (founded in 1123) and Professor of Diabetes and Autoimmunity and Diabetes Center Lead at the Blizard Institute at the University of London. I am a principle investigator of several European Union projects: Action LADA, the flagship epigenetic project BLUEPRINT, and an immunotherapy programme, EXALT. I am director of the British Diabetic Twin Study. I have recently stepped down from being the President of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland. My day is divided between administration, research and clinical work. In truth I cannot do it all and therefore rely on a wonderful team to help me and often bail me out. Some of them have been with me for many years, most notably Dr. Mohammed Hawa, who has endured me for more than 20 years.
- Why diabetes? How did you get involved in diabetes and/or what made you want to work in diabetes research?
I chose diabetes because I wanted to study endocrinology and Sir Richard Bayliss, then the Queen’s Physician, told me I should first study diabetes and go to Kings College, which had a famous Diabetes Department. Dr. David Pyke so engaged me with his wit, enthusiasm and intelligence that I stayed, and after a period at the University of Chicago on a Medical Research Council Travelling Fellowship, I was awarded a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellowship in Clinical Science at Kings.
- Tell us about your research.
My research has revolved around the observation that identical twins can differ, even for type 1 diabetes, i.e. one has the disease while the other does not. The twin study, initially started by Pyke, led me to propose that a non-genetic event is important in type 1 and operates early in life. Furthermore, with the late George Eisenbarth, we showed that the non-genetic effect (presumably environmental) is more prevalent in those who are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as adults than as children. I then started the European Union Action LADA study, and with Zhiguang Zhou, the China LADA study. This showed that adult-onset autoimmune diabetes is more prevalent than childhood-onset autoimmune diabetes in both Europe and China. Both have similar character and frequency, although childhood-onset diabetes in China is unusual. Finally, through funding by JDRFI and the European Union, we are investigating the role of epigenetics, a modification of DNA, as one of the non-genetic factors that might cause type 1 diabetes.
- What are your thoughts on the progress being made in T1D research as a whole?Research is amazing because it is a ratchet. Unlike ‘the dismal science’ of economics, true science can only get better. The shear weight of our knowledge about diabetes has not only transformed the lives of those with the condition, but also their prognosis. For example, who would have thought that in 1976, we would now be able to prevent blindness in 96% of those presenting with severe eye disease? Faced with this knowledge, who knows where we are going? But disease management largely revolves around tertiary prevention, or preventing complication in those with diabetes. Clearly, with our ability to predict the disease and the knowledge that a non-genetic event in early life causes diabetes, we can start to dream of primary prevention.
- Why is diabetes research so important?
Because knowledge is better than ignorance. We have so much to discover and all that we have learned with diabetes and other diseases is that things can only get better if we continue to do research.
- Do you have anything extra you would like to share? Is there anyone to thank or acknowledge?
I’d like to thank David Pyke, Richard Bayliss, Arthur Rubenstein, Paolo Pozzilli, Mohammed Hawa, Huriya Beyan and many others. But most especially my patients, their families and twins who devoted their time and blood towards a better future. That future has been underpinned by a number of agencies but no single agency has been as persistent, devoted and valued as has JDRF. They are fantastic.
- When you’re not working, what do you like to do for fun?
My decline in playing sport has been offset by my improvement in cooking.