Professor Peter Cockerill BSc, PhD

Professor Peter Cockerill

Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences
Emeritus Professor of Cytokine Gene Regulation

Contact details

Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences
College of Medical and Dental Sciences
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

Peter is an Emeritus Professor of Cytokine Gene Regulation within the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences.

He retired at the end of 2023 after working for 13 years at the University of Birmingham.

He maintains an interest in gene regulation in blood cells but no longer teaches or supervises research.

He has spent his career engaged in research using chromatin structure analysis as a tool to investigate gene regulation in the fields of molecular immunology and leukaemia. Peter was previously a professor at the University of Leeds from 2000 to 2011, and he ran a research group in Australia before that. He has used genome-wide sequencing methods to unravel the epigenetics and gene regulation networks controlled by different classes of mutations in Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML)

Peter has published over 80 research papers in scientific journals as well as reviews and book chapters in the fields of molecular immunology, leukaemia and chromatin structure. He has received major grants from Blood Cancer UK, the BBSRC, the MRC and various other funding bodies.

His research aimed at defining mechanisms that control the development and activation of the immune system, and how these mechanisms are hijacked in myeloid leukaemia. These studies used the combined approaches of investigating chromatin structure in parallel with analyses of the DNA elements that control gene expression.

In the field of immunology, this allowed the group to develop a comprehensive picture of the detailed mechanisms that allow cytokine genes to become activated in a tissue-specific manner in response to immune stimuli. He defined the basic principles of how immunological memory is established by epigenetic mechanisms in response to a single vaccination of a specific antigen. He also demonstrated that the entire T cell homeostasis programme has to be shut down before memory T cells can be reactivated.

Together with Professor David Wraith, Peter also described the fundamental mechanisms whereby escalating dose antigen peptide therapy can reprogramme auto-reactive T cells to become protective T cells in a model of autoimmune disease. Peptide therapy desensitises T cells by preferentially activating co-repressor receptor genes such as CTLA4 and PD1, thereby preventing T cells from reacting to Myelin Basic Protein in a model of Multiple Sclerosis.

In the field of AML, Peter ran a joint lab together with Professor Constanze Bonifer, and over the last several years they have worked together to perform genome-wide analyses of gene regulatory networks that subvert normal myeloid progenitor cell growth and differentiation in acute myeloid leukaemia. Together they demonstrated that different classes of mutations in transcription factors and signalling molecules each support different specific patterns of changes in gene regulatory networks. This research has identified key target genes of oncogenes that can now be targeted by specific therapies in AML. The lab in Birmingham closed at the end of 2023.


  • PhD Biochemistry 1983
  • BSc (Hons) Microbiology and Biochemistry 1976


Peter Cockerill qualified with a BSc (Hons) in Microbiology and Biochemistry from the University of Melbourne in 1976. He went on to study for a PhD in Biochemistry at the Institute for Cancer Research in London.

Peter took up a post-doctoral position at the University of Texas in Dallas in 1983 where he defined a new class of genetic elements termed MARs which anchor DNA to the nuclear matrix (Cell 1986). Peter continued this research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne before moving to the Hanson centre for Cancer Research in Adelaide in 1990.

At the Hanson Centre Peter began investigating cytokine gene regulation and chromatin structure. This led to the discovery of an inducible enhancer upstream of the human GM-CSF gene which is also the target for immunosuppressant Cyclosporin A (PNAS 1993). Peter was appointed as a professor at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine after moving to Leeds in 2001, where he identified all the additional elements required for the correct regulation of the human IL‑3/GM-CSF locus. These studies also defined the pattern of developmental regulation of the locus during haematopoietic development and T cell maturation. This led to the discovery of a significant new class of regulatory elements that function to maintain epigenetic imprints within genes that exist in a primed state in memory T cells.

Peter moved to Birmingham in 2011 where he ran a joint program of research together with Constanze Bonifer. He had major funding from the BBSRC to study the epigenetic basis of memory T cells, and was a joint holder of a Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research program grant investigating the molecular basis of leukaemia.

Since starting genome-wide analyses of T cells several years ago, he has also identified a memory T cell-specific sub-class of enhancer-like elements that do not directly activate transcription, but prime inducible genes to keep them in a poised state where they can rapidly respond to future immune stimuli.




Research approaches that were used in our laboratory

The central focus of our research was to couple the combined approaches of studying chromosomal structure and epigenetic modifications in parallel with studies of gene regulation so as to understand how genes function and how they are regulated at the level of the nucleus. We began by studying epigenetic modifications within the nucleus to identify open regions of chromatin bearing activating modifications to histone proteins. These regions represent the active transcriptional enhancers that together account for the transcriptional programs in cells.

In parallel we identified the transcription factors bound to these regions. These patterns tell us how cell identity is established, and how these transcriptional programs are deregulated in diseases such as leukaemia. One tool we employed a lot is to use the enzyme DNase I to map the locations of DNase I Hypersensitive Sites (DHSs) which exist at the accessible regions spanning active enhancer elements. When coupled with genome-wide mRNA analyses, a genome-wide DNase-Seq analysis leads to the identification of all the enhancers directly linked to all the genes expressed in any given cell type. This builds upon decades of research where we used the same tools in single gene studies to establish fundamental principles of gene regulation. These approaches have been successfully applied to the following major research areas:

(1) Defining the epigenetic basis of immunological memory in T cells

We set out to investigate the fundamental basis of acquired immunity by studying the ways in which the genome is re-programmed when T lymphocytes become activated for the first time. We showed that a single cycle of T cell activation leads to extensive epigenetic remodelling of genes which leaves them primed in a poised state to rapidly respond when they become activated for a second time as memory T cells. This mechanism represents the fundamental underlying basis of acquired immunity which allows memory T cells to efficiently combat infections.

At birth, the immune system consists of millions of different clones of naive T cells and B cells that are each capable of recognising different foreign molecules, but normally exist in a dormant non-responsive state. We found that many immune response genes, such as inducible cytokine genes, are very slow to respond in naive T cells. However, when T cells become fully activated, over an extended period of T cell Receptor stimulation, naive T cells undergo a complete transformation to become rapidly dividing and highly active effector T cells. This is what normally happens in response to infections. We demonstrated that genome-wide epigenetic remodelling occurs during blast cell transformation to create thousands of DHSs which are then retained even after effector T cells return to the the dormant state as memory T cells. However, the introduction of these primed DHSs allows memory T cells and effector T cells to respond much faster than naive T cells. We showed that the primed DHSs maintain active regions of chromatin that are closely associated with many of the inducible enhancers that control immune response genes. Simply by making these enhancers more accessible, the primed DHSs directly account for the fact that hundreds of inducible genes can respond rapidly in memory T cells but not in naive T cells. Because these primed DHSs do not normally turn on genes on in the resting state, this helps to ensure that the the genes that T cells use to fight infections are tightly regulated and do not get activated at the wrong time inappropriately. It is when these tight controls break down that the body can suffer from auto-immune and inflammatory diseases. This work was published in EMBO J in 2016.

(2) Defining the gene expression signature and regulatory network in leukaemia

The Cockerill and Bonifer groups teamed up to perform genome-wide analyses of the gene regulatory networks that get deregulated in leukaemia. This research program involved integrated epigenetic and mRNA analyses, and then linked these patterns to the underlying mutations in leukaemia cells. We investigated mechanisms of deregulation linked to mutations in several different transcription factors and signalling molecules.

In one such study, we identified a specific chromatin signature that defines DNA elements that are activated specifically in Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) with FLT3-ITD mutations which trigger constitutive receptor signalling which activates MAPK and the transcription factor AP-1. We observed that this pathway leads to the creation of ~1000 FLT3-ITD-specific DHSs that are highly enriched for AP-1, ETS and RUNX motifs, but not for motifs for STAT transcription factors that are activated instead by the JAK signalling pathway. In this way we showed that the FLT3-ITD mutation triggers AP-1 to redistribute ETS and RUNX family6 transcription factors to ~1000 additional sites where do not normally have access. These DHSs are linked to ~100 genes that get activated and which potentially account for the development of AML. This work was published in Cell Reports in 2015.

(3)  Decoding the regulatory network controlling expression of a cytokine gene locus

In our previous single locus gene regulation studies we created a transgenic mouse model of the intact human IL-3/GM-CSF locus. We showed that these two closely linked genes are regulated independently by distinct enhancers (J.Immunol 2010). Furthermore, we showed that the two genes are separated by a CTCF-dependent transcriptional insulator that allows them to be expressed independently in different tissues (Nucleic Acids Research 2010).

In the course of this research we defined an LCR-like region that is required for correct expression of the IL-3 gene. This encompasses a powerful inducible enhancer that largely accounts for the ability of IL-3-expressing cells such as T cells, mast cells, and myeloid progenitor cells to express IL-3. This locus also encompassed the first examples we identified of priming DHSs which lack classic enhancer activity, but maintain chromatin accessibility. This study was published in J. Immunol. in 2012.


Front Immunol 12:642807 (2021). Bevington SL, R Fiancette, DW Gajdasik, P Keane, JK Soley, CM Willis, . . . PN Cockerill. Stable Epigenetic Programming of Effector and Central Memory CD4 T Cells Occurs Within 7 Days of Antigen Exposure In Vivo.

Cell reports 35:109010 (2021). Potluri S, SA Assi, PS Chin, DJL Coleman, A Pickin, S Moriya, . . . PN Cockerill, C Bonifer. Isoform-specific and signaling-dependent propagation of acute myeloid leukemia by Wilms tumor 1.

EMBO J 39:e105220 (2020). Bevington SL, P Keane, JK Soley, S Tauch, DW Gajdasik, R Fiancette, . . . PN Cockerill. IL-2/IL-7-inducible factors pioneer the path to T cell differentiation in advance of lineage-defining factors.

Cell reports 31:107748 (2020). Bevington SL, STH Ng, GJ Britton, P Keane, DC Wraith and PN Cockerill. Chromatin Priming Renders T Cell Tolerance-Associated Genes Sensitive to Activation below the Signaling Threshold for Immune Response Genes.

Exp Hematol  (2020). Chin PS, SA Assi, A Ptasinska, MR Imperato, PN Cockerill and C Bonifer. RUNX1/ETO and mutant KIT both contribute to programming the transcriptional and chromatin landscape in t(8;21) acute myeloid leukemia.

Nat Genet 51:151-162 (2019). Assi SA, MR Imperato, DJL Coleman, A Pickin, S Potluri, A Ptasinska, . . . PN Cockerill, C Bonifer. Subtype-specific regulatory network rewiring in acute myeloid leukemia.

Leukemia 33:1463-1474 (2019). Edginton-White B, P Cauchy, SA Assi, S Hartmann, AG Riggs, S Mathas, . . . PN Cockerill, C Bonifer. Global long terminal repeat activation participates in establishing the unique gene expression programme of classical Hodgkin lymphoma.

Bioessays 39 (2017). Bevington SL, P Cauchy and PN Cockerill. Chromatin priming elements establish immunological memory in T cells without activating transcription: T cell memory is maintained by DNA elements which stably prime inducible genes without activating steady state transcription.

Front Immunol 8:204 (2017). Bevington SL, P Cauchy, DR Withers, PJ Lane and PN Cockerill. T Cell Receptor and Cytokine Signaling Can Function at Different Stages to Establish and Maintain Transcriptional Memory and Enable T Helper Cell Differentiation.

J Immunol 199:2652-2667 (2017). Brignall R, P Cauchy, SL Bevington, B Gorman, AO Pisco, J Bagnall, . . . PN Cockerill, P Paszek. Integration of Kinase and Calcium Signaling at the Level of Chromatin Underlies Inducible Gene Activation in T Cells.

EMBO J 35:515-535 (2016). Bevington SL, P Cauchy, J Piper, E Bertrand, N Lalli, RC Jarvis, . . . PN Cockerill. Inducible chromatin priming is associated with the establishment of immunological memory in T cells.

Cell reports 12:821-836 (2015). Cauchy P, SR James, J Zacarias-Cabeza, A Ptasinska, MR Imperato, SA Assi, . . . PN Cockerill. Chronic FLT3-ITD Signaling in Acute Myeloid Leukemia Is Connected to a Specific Chromatin Signature.

Nucleic Acids Res 41:e201 (2013). Piper J, MC Elze, P Cauchy, PN Cockerill, C Bonifer and S Ott. Wellington: a novel method for the accurate identification of digital genomic footprints from DNase-seq data.

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