Obituary: Andy Sims, breast cancer researcher and accomplished runner and mountaineer

Andy Sims, cancer researcher. Born: December 8, 1977 in Chesterfield. Died: May 14, 2021 in Edinburgh, aged 43.

Andy Sims headed the cancer research bioinformatics section at Edinburgh University

The first thing anyone noticed about Andy Sims was the broad smile that immediately welcomed you into his company and set you at your ease. Children have that wide, natural, friendly smile as a default, but most people tend to lose it as they grow into adulthood. Andy Sims didn’t.

Sitting at a bench at Summerhall on a sunny night in Edinburgh, in his running gear, with a pint of post-run ale in his hand, enthusiastically relating some tale or other about races past, there was nothing to suggest that this boyish raconteur was an internationally renowned pioneer in cancer research, a Senior Research Fellow at Edinburgh University writing or contributing to over 100 scientific papers and publications.

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Andy Sims was positive, passionate, energetic and very modest. In running circles people often mixed him up with another member of the Hunters Bog Trotters club Ray Ward, but Andy maintained it was easy to tell them apart because Ray was so much faster.

I knew Andy Sims personally through running. And Andy was a speedy runner in his own right. He ran for HBT in the Scottish National Cross-Country Championships, ran the Parkrun 5k in under 19 minutes, raced in marathon majors and completed the notorious Bob Graham Round – a fell-running challenge, in which runners have to get through 66 miles and 42 hills in 24 hours in the Lake District.

His accomplishments as a runner reflect a focus, dedication and enthusiasm that he brought to his pioneering work in breast cancer research, specifically to his specialist field of biotechnology.

He headed the cancer research bioinformatics section at Edinburgh University. Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that uses digital technology to attempt to make sense of masses of biological data and aims to better understand the genetic basis of disease, identify and treat it. He was directly involved in research, mentoring and teaching.

Born in Chesterfield in 1977, Andrew Harvey Sims grew up in the village of Wingerworth, on the edge of the Peak District. His father worked in pensions with British Telecom, his mother was a librarian.

He developed a passion for the outdoors at an early age and climbed his first mountain at the age of seven – Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales. He had a lifelong love of walking, running, climbing, cycling, skiing and camping, in Britain and on farflung shores.

He also represented his school at chess and football and later qualified as a referee. At school he was not especially academic, but did enough to pass his exams and get into a degree course in Biological Sciences at Edinburgh University, where he was known as Lard, not because he was fat – he was built like a whippet, but because of his appetite. He was rarely found far from a ready supply of food – even, and perhaps especially, when running up and down mountains. As well as HBT, he was a keen member of the Edinburgh Mountaineering Club.

After graduating, Andy worked as a research assistant on biodiversity of soil samples at the British Antarctic Survey laboratories in Cambridge and as a clinical assistant on viral diagnostics at the Public Health Laboratories at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. He did a PhD in Biotechnology at Manchester University, during which he spent six months with a biotech company in California.

He developed his interest in breast cancer while working at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester before returning to Edinburgh in 2008 when he was invited to establish the new bioinformatics unit within the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine (now the Institute of Genetics and Cancer).

Based at the Western General Hospital, work was an easy cycle from his home in Silverknowes, enabling him to maximise his time with his young son and daughter. He also reduced his workload to spend one “Daddy day” a week with them.

He taught them chess, took them to Junior Parkrun and dug out his own childhood Lego sets, carefully preserved in the original packaging, bringing the same passion to such enterprises that he brought to everything in his life.

Andy was diagnosed with melanoma in 2019. He learned last year that it had spread. Many of his friends learned from a post on Strava, a site that records personal runs and exercise. On March 22 he posted a digital record with the heading “Mile day 6 after brain surgery for terminal cancer”, in which he revealed he had not been expected to survive till the new year.

He remained focused, dedicated and enthusiastic, turning his experience into a talk for university staff and students called “Shining a Light on Cancer – Living with Melanoma”. At his funeral one of his friends recalled the saying that if life gives you lemons, make lemonade, adding that Andy would have also made jugs of G&T and a lemon drizzle cake and thrown a party.

He still went on family bike rides and did a 15-mile cycle from his home to South Queensferry and back with a friend as recently as April. And he still took an interest in others, just as he always had at work and play, taking time to “like” a half-marathon I had done on Strava. That was just five days before he died.

He is survived by his wife Jane, a school teacher whom he met on a blind date during his time in Manchester, by children Helena and Robert, both under ten, and by both his parents.

One of the last photos he uploaded onto Strava was from that final cycle ride, posing on his bike on the front at South Queensferry, with the bridges in the background. It is a beautiful cloudless day. And of course, as always, Andy is smiling from ear to ear.


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