A scientific career which has generated significant progress in understanding type 1 diabetes has won a University of Exeter professor two international accolades, including a lifetime achievement award.

Professor Noel Morgan was “delighted, humbled and surprised” to receive a lifetime achievement award by the Network of Pancreatic Organ Donors with Diabetes (nPOD) in California this month.

It comes soon after he won the GF Bottazzo award from the Immunology of Diabetes Society for 2024, recognising his progress in understanding type 1 diabetes throughout a celebrated career. This award is made in honour of Italian physician Gian Franco Bottazzo who made pioneering discoveries into the causes of type 1 diabetes, and recognises a scientist who has contributed further in the field.

Professor Morgan, who joined the University of Exeter in 2002, said: “I’m truly delighted and genuinely humbled to receive these awards. It has been my lifelong ambition to find a way to stop the development of type 1 diabetes and I’m thrilled that my research may have brought this day closer. It’s a special pleasure that others working in the field have seen my contributions as important. It’s also recognition for my amazing team of truly inspirational scientists who have made the exciting journey of discovery with me. I owe them a huge debt.”

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, destroying them. This means they no longer regulate blood sugar levels effectively and people affected by the condition must inject insulin several times a day to do this job. Professor Morgan’s 45-year career has yielded breakthroughs that include work which suggests viral infection in the insulin-producing cells of children soon after type 1 diabetes develops. This understanding has led to new clinical trials of anti-viral agents and  a possible vaccine is in development. 

More recently, his team produced the first clear evidence that type 1 diabetes takes a different form in very young children, compared to older children. This was shown in multiple ways, including using the world’s largest collection of samples from the pancreas of people with recent-onset type 1 diabetes, which Professor Morgan curates. The research indicated that, in those who are older, the immune attack is much less aggressive than had been thought. This work provides an important opportunity for more personalised therapy in the future.

His research also triggered new understanding by revealing that many people still retain insulin-secreting cells long after diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. This indicates that these cells may have developed altered responses to blood sugar levels rather than being killed by the immune system, as had been supposed. 

Professor Sallie Lamb, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Exeter’s Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, said: “These awards are hugely deserved. Noel’s illustrious career has really progressed understanding around type 1 diabetes, and led to advances and clinical trials that move us towards new treatments. He has always put patients right at the heart of everything he does, and I’m delighted to see him acknowledged. Noel and his team are pioneering, and are a core strength of our international reputation for diabetes research here at Exeter.”

Professor Morgan’s lab is part of a culture of diabetes research at Exeter which spans back to the 90s. Diabetes is now one of the five core themes of the Exeter NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, which aims to translate research into patient benefits as swiftly as possible.

Elizabeth Robertson, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, said: “We are thrilled to celebrate Professor Morgan’s remarkable achievements in advancing our understanding of type 1 diabetes, which have now been duly acknowledged through these prestigious awards. The collective efforts of Professor Morgan and others mean that we now stand at the brink of a new era of treatments to delay or even entirely prevent type 1 diabetes. We are immensely proud to have supported Professor Morgan’s innovative research throughout his career, and extend our heartfelt gratitude for his unwavering support of Diabetes UK.”

Watch Noel leading a lab tour and talking about his research in this Diabetes UK video: