Prof David Leon
Professor of Epidemiology
My career in epidemiology began in the late 1970s when I was employed by a London Hospital to identify which bladder cancer patients they treated had been exposed to chemicals known to cause this malignancy and to also identify other unknown risk factors. Having a first degree in sociology and philosophy I quickly realised that I needed a new set of skills, which led me to visit LSHTM. Eventually in 1985 I joined LSHTM as a lecturer working on occupational cancer (the topic of my PhD) and also on socio-demographic differences in cancer incidence using a pioneering Census linkage project now known as the ONS Longitudinal Study. In the 1990s I set up and led a series of widely cited studies on the fetal origins of adult disease in Sweden. At the same time I became interested in health in the former communist countries of Europe. From the mid-1990s I started working on mortality and health in Russia drawn to the challenge of understanding why the collapse of the Soviet Union led to huge falls in life expectancy at the time. This work led me to establishing long-term creative collaborations at the interface of epidemiology and demography.
I have sat on and chaired numerous advisory and funding panels in the UK and elsewhere, and have been particularly involved with the work of UK Medical Research Council. I currently co-chair the LSHTM Ethics Committee and am Head of the Department of Non-Communicable Diseases Epidemiology.
I teach on a range of MSc courses at LSHTM including the introductory course on epidemiology. With Stephane Hue I organise the module on Epidemiology and -Omics which provides an introduction to public health and epidemiological applications of the rapidly developing field of -omics in biomedical science.
The link between alcohol and health has been a particular theme of my research interests. This has included comparative studies of liver cirrhosis trends across Europe which brought into focus a major increase in Scotland and the rest of the UK in the 2000s. This work was influential in getting the Scottish government to develop a comprehensive alcohol strategy. My main focus over the past 30 years been on Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union male life expectancy fell to 57 years in 1994. Between 2002 and 2010, together with colleagues at LSHTM and in Russia, I led a Wellcome Trust funded case-control study on alcohol and mortality. This established for the first time a key role for hazardous drinking as a major explanation for high working age male mortality there. Between 2014 and 2020 I ran the International Project on Cardiovascular Disease in Russia (IPCDR) involving collaborations with over 50 scientists from Russia, the UK, Germany and Norway. This project was funded by the Wellcome Trust and various sources in Norway. Because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 l have now stopped working with people in Russia. This is because all of my collaborations there involved Russian state institutions and in my view it is not right to engage with them while Russia is carrying out a completely unjustifiable war against Ukraine and its population.
My current research includes work on excess mortality during the COVID pandemic, understanding negative trends in mortality and life expectancy in the UK since 2010, developing a critique of the Global Burden of Disease study and contributing to the IHCoR study that is working on improving diagnosis and treatment of hypertension in rural Africa.