Mark Peakman is a Professor of Clinical Immunology at King’s College London. With a research career spanning more than 30 years, Professor Peakman is a leading figure in the field of immunotherapy for type 1 diabetes and JDRF is proud to have supported his research throughout this time.
Here he speaks to us about his career and shares his thoughts on the future of type 1 diabetes research.
What got you into type 1 diabetes research?
It started after my medical training, when I had a conversation with my mentor about what I could do for my postgraduate research. He gave me the latest research in immunology to take home and read, some of it in type 1 diabetes.
At the time, not much was known about type 1, and reading through the literature, something just grabbed me about it. Some of the earliest findings were starting to come out around the genetics of the condition, as well as early descriptions of the cells that attack beta cells in type 1.
So by the time I came to do my PhD in immunology, I’d got the bug. Even though I still had to finish my clinical training, I knew that I wanted to be a clinical researcher.
What happened next?
After I finished my clinical training, I went to the United States to continue my research into type 1 diabetes. There I made a number of discoveries about the role of a group of genes that help regulate the immune system. This led us to a set of molecules called peptides, which we thought could potentially be used as part of a treatment.
When I came back to the UK, I started speaking with JDRF about how to turn these peptides into a drug and got some funding to explore that.
Since then, we’ve done several clinical trials and our approach has shown some promise. In fact, this is the area of research that I’m going to take forward in the future.
How do you see type 1 diabetes research developing in the years ahead?
I think we’ll see more developments in prevention. We already have the tools to estimate your risk before you’re diagnosed, so we need to get to the point where whatever stage you’re at, pre-diagnosis, we can prevent you from getting type 1.
And we’re just starting to see the first drugs that can do that – teplizumab is a really good example. Researchers found that it could delay the development of type 1 by an average of two years in people at high risk.
What would you change about the way research is done?
The way research is structured today, everybody has their own field – whether it’s technology, beta cell encapsulation, or immunotherapy. And they’re all adding a piece of the puzzle. But perhaps we could advance more quickly by combining our approaches, and tackling type 1 on more than one front.
I also think it depends what people affected by type 1 diabetes want to see from research. Ultimately, they’re the ones who will benefit.
A lot of people ask me if there’s any way to make their life with type 1 easier, right now. There is work going on in this area, but it’s tough. Because we have insulin and it is very safe to use, there’s a resistance to developing new drugs with the potential for side effects. So it needs more people with type 1 to speak out and push for this research.
What do you think about Connect Immune Research, where JDRF is working with the MS Society, Versus Arthritis and the British Society for Immunology on the links between autoimmune conditions?
I think that if we can better understand the common pathways, as well as why different conditions affect different tissues, then that would be a major step forward.
We don’t have that insight yet but we’re only going to get it through an initiative such as Connect Immune Research.
How has working with JDRF helped your research?
I feel very lucky to have had the support of JDRF throughout my career. It’s not just funding, but advice and knowledge. So I’ll definitely continue to seek advice and support from JDRF in my future endeavours.
I’ve also appreciated the opportunity JDRF has given me to meet people who live with type 1 diabetes – it reminds me of why the work we do is so important.
And finally: if you weren’t an immunologist what would you be doing?
I’d like to be in the peloton actually – I’d like to experience the Tour de France!