Peter Parham grew up in London and in 1972 gained a degree in Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge. He then obtained a Kennedy Fellowship that enabled him to pursue graduate studies in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Harvard University. There he joined the research group of Jack Strominger and worked on studies to purify and sequence HLA-A and –B proteins.
On gaining his PhD in 1977, Parham was awarded a three year Harvard Junior Fellowship, which enabled him to spend the first year in Walter Bodmer’s research group in the Genetics Department at the University of Oxford. At that time the new technology of monoclonal antibodies was just beginning to be applied to the study of cell-surface proteins and in particular, at Oxford, to the HLA system. By immunizing mice with highly purified HLA-A and –B proteins, Parham was able to make an extensive panel of monoclonal antibodies that recognized a variety of polymorphic and monomorphic epitopes of HLA class I. Some of the polymorphic epitopes corresponded to the alloantigens defined by human alloantisera, but others were different and revealed previously unknown heterogeneity in HLA antigens.
On joining the faculty of Stanford University in 1980, Parham began to develop sequence-based strategies for precise definition of the differences between HLA-A, -B and –C allotypes and for discovering the common HLA-A, -B and –C allotypes that could not be distinguished by serological HLA typing. Since 1991, Parham has expanded this immunogenetic approach to the KIR family of lymphocyte receptors, which recognize epitopes of HLA class I and has genetic diversity comparable to that of HLA class I. For these research accomplishments Peter Parham has received the Rose Payne, Ceppellini, Festenstein and Simons awards for histocompatibility and immunogenetics. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2008 and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2016.