Q&A with Professor Simon Heller

We spoke to Professor Simon Heller, world-renowned diabetes specialist and Chair of the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge Scientific Advisory Panels, to find out about his research journey and hopes for the Grand Challenge

February 10, 2023
Professor Simon Heller Chair of the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge scientific advisory panels

Professor Simon Heller is chair of all three scientific advisory panels in the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge, covering beta cells, novel insulins and root causes of type 1 diabetes. Along with the leading experts who sit on these panels, Simon will help to steer the direction of the Grand Challenge to make sure our funding is invested in the right places, with the biggest potential to change the lives of people with type 1 diabetes. He is also Professor of Clinical Diabetes at the University of Sheffield and a world-renowned scientist, whose research has led the way in transforming our understanding of hypoglycaemia.

Why did you want to get involved with the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge?

Simon: “It was a huge honour to be asked to assist in determining how this huge amount of funding could best be used to benefit type 1 diabetes research in the UK. It’s important to me to do my best to see our research move more quickly towards a cure for people with type 1.”

How do you think the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge will be a game-changer for type 1 diabetes research?

“I hope that the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge will allow the UK to play a major part in moving the research landscape closer to a cure. It will hopefully enable us to do something much more rapidly than we otherwise would be able to.”

What would a cure for type 1 diabetes look like to you?

“A cure would be removing the burden of day-to-day self-management of type 1 diabetes. In particular, it would allow people with the condition to live a life of spontaneity and doing activities which those of us without diabetes often take for granted.”

How did you get into the field of type 1 diabetes research?

“When I arrived at the Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham as a trainee registrar, I was intending to be a cardiologist. But a six-month placement in a diabetes team changed that. The legendary diabetes researcher Robert Tattersall (who discovered MODY and introduced the world to self-monitoring blood glucose levels) was my boss. He was a wonderful teacher who taught me to listen to people with diabetes and learn for myself how much it asked of people in terms of self-management. He also showed me that it wasn’t the healthcare professionals who made the biggest impact on managing type 1, but instead how much the person themselves could learn and implement about this very complex condition. Robert inspired me to become a researcher and showed me what an interesting and important specialty diabetes is.”

What has been your career highlight so far?

“It’s hard to narrow it down. One highlight is bringing the DAFNE training course – which helps people with type 1 lead a healthy life – from Germany to the UK’s NHS. Another key achievement was discovering that repeated hypos lead to impaired awareness of hypoglycaemia and increased risk of hypoglycaemia. I feel fortunate that I have been involved in research which has made a difference to the lives of people with type 1.”

Tell us something we don’t know about diabetes or the pancreas

“When I was preparing a talk on hypoglycaemia, I learnt that the first definition of 1 unit of insulin was the amount of insulin which could cause an epileptic seizure in a rabbit. This is because over a hundred years ago when insulin was discovered, there was no way of measuring insulin amounts. I read this fact in a wonderful book by Michael Bliss titled The Discovery of Insulin.”

What are you currently working on?

“My main research project at the moment is working with researchers from the USA, UK and Australia on a large research trial. The study is testing what the most effective way of restoring the warnings for hypoglycaemia in people with type 1 who have lost them.”

What skills do you need to have to be a great researcher?

“From working with great researchers, I’ve learnt that they need to be curious, creative and persistent. The best clinical researchers listen to people with lived experience to ensure they address important questions.”

What do you like doing when you’re not working on research?

“I spend my spare time travelling to interesting places, reading, and listening to music – particularly opera. I also love spending time with my family and my three grandkids. Less rewarding in recent years has been my love for Tottenham Hotspur FC.”

What would you be doing if you weren’t a researcher?

“I can’t think of any other careers as rewarding as supporting patients. I’d be very happy just doing clinical work alone.”