Professor Tessa Holyoake, a world-renowned expert in Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML) and one of the most exceptional scientists and clinicians of her generation, died peacefully on 30 August, aged 54.
Professor Holyoake was the Professor of Experimental Haematology in the Institute of Cancer Sciences at the University of Glasgow and Director of the Paul O’Gorman Leukaemia Research Centre. She is remembered for her world-leading contributions to CML, and as an inspiration and friend by colleagues and patients alike.
Born in 1963 in Aberdeen, she was educated at Albyn school and later went on to study medicine at the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1985. She completed a PhD in Glasgow in 1996 before embarking on a two-year research fellowship in Vancouver, where she lived for two years with her husband Andy.
One of the most outstanding clinician scientists in the field of Experimental Haematology, she joined the university as a researcher in 1992, achieving her personal professorship in October 2004.
She made a number of seminal observations that have transformed our understanding of CML and its treatment. Most notably, she was the first to identify the existence of cancer stem cells in CML in 1999 during her research fellowship in Vancouver. Later, she demonstrated the resistance of these stem cells to CML-specific therapies such as imatinib.
Prof Holyoake made a world-leading contribution to her field, by identifying key CML stem cell survival pathways that can be manipulated to develop potential new treatments. This will have an enormous impact on the lives of patients with CML. As a direct result of her research, CML patients who have had poor responses to standard therapies have been offered alternative treatment in clinical trials in an attempt to achieve remission.
The hope and benefit this work has given patients cannot be underestimated and without doubt, Professor Holyoake became the most highly acclaimed and successful researcher in this field in the UK.
She was a key member of the fundraising campaign, which raised in excess of £4 million towards building the Paul O’Gorman Leukaemia Research Centre (POG). The centre was opened in 2008 by Dr Richard Rockefeller, the great-grandson of America’s first billionaire and a CML sufferer who had donated generously to Prof Holyoake’s work.
POG is recognised internationally as a centre of excellence for leukaemia research and houses the largest biobank of CML patient samples in the world. Prof Holyoake held research grants worth over £8m from Research Councils, charities, and industry. In addition to her role as Director of the Centre, she was a Consultant Haematologist at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre.
Here, her patients often expressed great admiration for her scientific achievements, but her main focus at clinic was always to be an excellent and compassionate clinician, which she continued to be despite her academic workload.
In 2009, she won the Scottish Health Awards Cancer Care Award, in 2011, the Lord Provost of Glasgow Health Award and in 2015, the Scottish Alba Saltire Society Fletcher of Saltoun Award for her contribution to science, and the Scottish Cancer Foundation Inaugural Prize and Evans/Forrest Medal. She was made a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2013.
In March 2017, she was awarded the prestigious Rowley Prize by the International CML Foundation in recognition of her ground-breaking work understanding and targeting CML stem cells.
She was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) in 2007, and in July 2017, she was awarded a RSE Royal Medal by Her Majesty the Queen in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the field of Life Sciences.
Outside of work, Tessa spent much of her time with her husband Andy at their beloved holiday house on Loch Tummel, usually in the company of some of their many friends and family. Cycling, running, swimming or some other exercise was invariably on the agenda as was a soak in the hot tub in the early evening. With the help of friends and excellent local GP and district nurse support Tessa was able to stay at their holiday home until she died.
Asked to describe Professor Holyoake in three words, colleagues and friends agreed she was energetic, enthusiastic and inspirational. She will be remembered by family, friends and colleagues as a hardworking and dedicated clinician, outstanding scientist, fearless mountain biker and cake lover.
Professor Holyoake is survived by her husband Andy, her mother Mary, her sister Sylvia and brother Nick.