Prestigious award for diabetes professor

An outstanding diabetes expert at the University of Exeter Medical School has been recognised through a prestigious Royal Society prize.

Professor Andrew Hattersley received the GlaxoSmithKline Prize, an international award which is presented every two years for original contributions to medical sciences in the last 10 years. The award is for Professor Hattersley’s work on the genetics of diabetes which, in the common subtypes of monogenic diabetes, has revolutionised patients’ treatment.

Professor Hattersley said: “I am honoured to receive this prize, which recognises the work of the whole Exeter Genetics of Diabetes team. Our outstanding multi-disciplinary team has studied all aspects of monogenic diabetes including gene discovery, clinical diagnosis, treatment and prognosis. We provide diagnostic services and advice on treatment for patients from 86 countries worldwide.”

Professor Hattersley’s team specialises in discovering the genetic causes of diabetes and using this information to give a precise diagnosis and optimal treatment. Their work has made molecular genetic diagnosis of monogenic diabetes essential in routine clinical practice.  They are presently extending their “precision diabetes” approach from the less common genetic forms of diabetes to Type 2 diabetes that affects over 4% of the UK population.

Professor Steve Thornton, Dean of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “We’re extremely proud of Andrew and his whole team. Their world-leading research has a direct impact on quality of life for families affected by diabetes in the South West and worldwide. The award also reflects teamwork across the NHS and with the patients without whom the work could not have been done.”

The work of Professor Hattersley and his team means patients could be spared a lifetime of daily insulin injections.

Professor Andrew Hattersley is a clinical researcher whose work on diabetes combines state-of-the-art molecular genetics, physiological studies and clinical observations to generate important scientific insights. He is medically trained, still clinically active, and reknowned for his ability to translate his basic science discoveries into advances in patient care.

His medical degree was obtained at Cambridge (pre-clinical) and Oxford (clinical). After general medical training in London, he undertook post-graduate training in diabetes at the Hammersmith hospital and Birmingham. His scientific research career began as an MRC training fellow in Oxford in 1990, working with Professor Turner, Dr Wainscoat and Professor Weatherall on clinical, physiological and molecular biological aspects of maturity-onset diabetes of the young (MODY). This work led to the identification of glucokinase as the first gene to cause diabetes (simultaneously with a French group). It also instilled Hattersley with a life-long interest in monogenic diabetes. He continued this work as a lecturer in Birmingham for 2 years, and then moved to a senior lecturership and consultant physician post at Exeter (1995).

Hattersley rapidly transformed Exeter from a centre without a genetics lab to being the premier international centre for monogenic diabetes. He now leads a 29-person research team that integrates cutting-edge scientific research with an NHS diagnostic laboratory, and routine patient care in diabetes.

His major contribution in the past 10 years has been to define the genetic aetiology of monogenic diabetes and, by studying these patients, to improve our knowledge of the development, function and regulation of the insulin-secreting pancreatic beta-cells. This work, both independently and in collaboration with others, has led to the identification of >10 genes that cause neonatal diabetes. Discovery of the causal role of activating mutations in KATP channel genes in neonatal diabetes (2004) immediately led to the possibility that sulphonylurea drugs, which close the channel, might stimulate insulin secretion in these patients. Hattersley subsequently demonstrated that these drugs produce excellent glycaemic control without hypoglycaemia (2006). This work led to the rewriting of international guidelines for all patients diagnosed with diabetes before 6 months to include immediate genetic diagnosis. Hattersley now offers rapid, free, genetic testing patients with neonatal diabetes. As a result, >1200 patients from over 80 countries have now switched from insulin injections to oral sulphonylurea therapy.

Hattersley has developed and assessed biomarkers and diagnostic approaches for the diagnosis of MODY (2010-2013). His work on the treatment and management of the different subgroups of MODY has transformed international guidelines. Recent work has led to a greater understanding of the role and regulation of transcription factors in beta-cell development and function (2009-2013).

His work has not been confined to monogenic diabetes: from 1995-2008 he co-led the UK research effort to identify genetic polymorphisms that predispose to Type 2 diabetes including FTO the major polymorphism predisposing to obesity. Latterly, this work has provided novel insights into the relationship between birth weight and diabetes in later life (2007-2012). Current studies include the development and implementation of a personalised approach to the treatment of Type 2 diabetes.