Picture of Professor John Todd
Picture of Professor John Todd Photo courtesy of Novo Nordisk / © Stephen Foote

Prestigious award for Oxford professor's diabetes work

A University of Oxford professor has been awarded the 2021 EASD-Novo Nordisk Foundation Prize for Excellence for his decades of effort to understand, prevent and combat type 1 diabetes.

Professor John Andrew Todd – Professor of Precision Medicine and Director of the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics and of the JDRF/Wellcome Diabetes and Inflammation Laboratory (DIL) – was honoured for his world-class research that potentially foresees type 1 diabetes and daily insulin injections as a thing of the past.

He said: ‘My first thought was that I was overwhelmed and very honoured to receive the prize. And my second was for type 1 diabetes, because the disease is the overlooked little brother of type 2. Well, this is changing.

‘I think the scientific community underestimates what a burden it is to have a child with type 1 diabetes even if that child is using all the modern devices. Night-time is still a worry, for example, because a child might have a hypoglycaemic episode. So, I thank all the people with whom I have worked on type 1 diabetes and brought the field to where it is today.’

Type 1 diabetes has lifelong implications such as blindness, kidney failure, neuropathy and cardiovascular disease. Professor Todd’s 35-year career has been dedicated to understanding the complex interaction of genes and environmental factors acting especially in the first year of life and which leads to the body’s own immune system destroying the cells in the pancreatic islets that produce insulin – and to use this knowledge to treat and ultimately prevent the disease.

Along with his long-standing co-worker, Professor Linda Wicker, Professor Todd has been the driving force behind setting up important studies on the genetic background of type 1 diabetes that led to demonstrating the importance of the interleukin-2 pathway. Mild differences in the levels of interleukin-2 in the body can have huge effects on the immune system and ultimately lead to an autoimmune reaction and the development of the disease.

He said: ‘We are therefore currently running a trial using a recombinant human interleukin-2 drug, called aldesleukin, to compensate for this deficiency as a treatment for type 1 diabetes.

‘Our hope is the results will help to implement a therapy for children and young adults who have signs of autoimmunity but are not yet diagnosed with the disease and thus prevent progression of this serious disorder, which affects one in 400 children per year.’

Professor Todd has published more than 500 original papers – including 12 recent publications in Science, Nature, Cell, and New England Journal of Medicine – and has more than 45,000 citations by scientific colleagues.

He said: ‘We learned a lot of lessons. Now many things are coinciding positively because of both new knowledge, new technologies, new ways of running clinical trials and collaborative networks, and a new wave of interest from the pharmaceutical/biotech industry.

‘We are entering an era of genuine optimism in both prevention and treatment, so today, we can finally glimpse a world without type 1 diabetes and daily insulin injections.’

Stefano Del Prato, Chair of the Prize Committee and President of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD), said: ‘John Todd is a true pioneer and visionary. His work is characterised by innovative thinking successfully translated into novel research targets, and it has fostered international collaborations with leading scientists in difficult clinical trials with children at high risk for type 1 diabetes.’

The Prize, which is accompanied by DKK6 million (€806,000, £691,200), is awarded to recognize outstanding research or technology contributions that increase knowledge of diabetes, its disease mechanisms or its complications. It is awarded in collaboration between the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) and the Novo Nordisk Foundation, an independent Danish foundation.

Professor Todd will officially receive the Prize on 29 September, 2021 at the online 2021 EASD Annual Meeting.