Professor Tessa Holyoake

05 Sep 2017

We were deeply saddened to learn that one of our Bloodwise-funded scientists - Professor Tessa Holyoake – has passed away.

Professor Tessa Holyoake - head and shoulders shot against a nature background

As well as being an acclaimed doctor who specialised in treating people with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), her research on cancer stem cells was world-leading. 

Bloodwise has had the honour of supporting Professor Holyoake since 1993, when she started out as a Clinical Research Fellow. We currently fund her interdisciplinary research group at the Paul O'Gorman Leukaemia Research Centre in Glasgow, where she was also director.

In 2002, her team were the first to demonstrate that using the modern mainstay of CML treatment – drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) - would be unlikely to cure CML. Because despite their great success in keeping CML under control, TKIs cannot kill the ‘master’ CML cells, so-called ‘cancer stem cells’, which may make up only a tiny proportion of the total population of cancer cells, but produce a steady stream of new CML cells. 

Tessa and her team then set out to identify the pathways that are key to cancer stem cell survival. Last year, they found that two proteins called p53 and c-Myc, act as essential ‘gateway controllers’ in CML. Using mice, the group developed a drug combination to simultaneously target these critical proteins and kill the CML stem cells, while largely sparing normal cells. These findings could have huge implications for the way we treat CML and may also be useful for other cancers, including acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and brain tumours. Just this year Professor Holyoake’s team won a €3m grant from the European Research Council, which they hope will bring a cure for CML closer for some patients.  

Professor Holyoake’s outstanding contributions to research were recently recognised when, without her knowing, she was nominated by her team and colleagues for a Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Royal Medal. RSE Royal Medals, introduced in 2000 by the Queen to mark the millennium, recognise the UK’s most outstanding academic talent. Her Majesty the Queen presented the award to Professor Holyoake last month for her discovery of the existence of cancer stem cells in CML, and her development of a new therapy for this condition.

Also this year, Professor Holyoake was awarded the Rowley Prize, which is given by the International CML Foundation to celebrate people who have made outstanding lifetime contributions to the understanding of the biology of CML. The prize was in recognition of her ground breaking work in understanding and targeting CML stem cells.

Dr Alasdair Rankin, Director of Research at Bloodwise said: “Tessa was not only a brilliant scientist and clinician, but a colleague and friend to many of us. As a member of our Research Committee she was an excellent and trusted advisor to the charity who always set and expected the highest standards. It is a great sadness that she will not see all the fruits of the research that her team are determined to continue. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with Tessa's family and friends.”

Find out more about Professor Holyoake’s research.