Professor Tessa Holyoake presented with Royal Medal by the Queen

Published: 7 July 2017

World-leading Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML) doctor, Professor Tessa Holyoake has been awarded a Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Royal Medal by Her Majesty the Queen.

World-leading Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML) doctor, Professor Tessa Holyoake has been awarded a Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Royal Medal by Her Majesty the Queen today (Friday 7 July 2017).

The medal was presented to Professor Holyoake in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the field of Life Sciences, through her discovery of the existence of cancer stem cells in CML and her development of a new therapy for this condition.

Professor Tessa Holyoake on receiving her RSE Royal Medal

Professor Holyoake, who is the director of the University of Glasgow Paul O’Gorman Leukaemia Research Centre, was presented with her medal by Her Majesty the Queen at a ceremony in Edinburgh. ‌‌

On receiving the award Professor Holyoake said: “I am honoured to receive this RSE Royal Medal. It came as a complete surprise, as my team and colleagues had nominated me for it without me knowing.

“I think the award is recognition for all the work both I, and the whole team have done to further research into CML. We have created an internationally recognised world-leading team of people here in Glasgow and through our work moved forward this field of research.”

Professor Holyoake’s world-leading research is on the cancer stem cell, specifically in CML and other blood cancers. Together with her interdisciplinary research group in Glasgow, she has developed laboratory methods to purify the cells of interest from leukaemia patients and from normal donors, allowing side-by-side comparisons of leukaemic versus normal stem cells. These comparisons include global analyses of gene and protein expression.

In 2002 she was the first to demonstrate that CML stem cells are completely insensitive to killing by first generation kinase inhibitor, imatinib. These findings published in Blood highlighted that kinase inhibitors alone would be unlikely to cure CML. Her work since then has focused on the identification of key stem cell survival pathways that may be manipulated in a selective manner.

A recent study published in Nature, led by Prof Holyoake, analysed both CML and normal blood stem cells and found two proteins that are key to the survival of CML stem cells. The group then developed a drug combination to simultaneously target these critical proteins and kill the CML stem cells, while largely sparing normal cells.

The team has now gone on to win a €3m grant from the European Research Council which will allow them to use precision medicine techniques to study CML stem cells in pre-clinical laboratory models as well as directly in patients. Professor Holyoake and her team hope that their work will reveal more accurate ways to target cancerous stem cells, and potentially lead to drugs that could cure some CML patients.

RSE Royal Medals, introduced in 2000 by the Queen to mark the millennium, recognise the UK’s most outstanding academic talent.

These accolades are awarded for distinction and international repute in any of the following categories: Life Sciences; Physical and Engineering Sciences; Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; Business and Commerce. Previous recipients have included Nobel Laureates such as Sir James Black and Sir James Mirrlees, as well as the distinguished Scottish historian Prof Tom Devine, and theoretical physicist Professor Peter Higgs.

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First published: 7 July 2017

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