Between bench and patient’s bedside

Helen Heslop
Helen Heslop

These days, University of Otago medical graduate Helen Heslop is a professor of medicine and paediatrics and director of the Centre for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Prof Heslop is an internationally-respected leader in developing immunotherapy treatments for leukaemia and other life-threatening diseases, writes John Gibb. 

University of Otago medical graduate Helen Heslop is making a life-saving difference by helping develop cutting-edge immunotherapy treatments to fight leukaemia and other diseases.

Prof Heslop (59) is a professor in the department of medicine and paediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and is also director of the Centre for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor.

‘‘It's always very satisfying when we see patients come back who are long-term survivors who would not be previously,'' she says.

Her initial studies were the first to demonstrate that antigen-specific cytotoxic T cells could ‘‘eradicate an established malignancy''.

And she continues to enjoy a mix of some clinical work, dealing directly with patients, as well as her advanced laboratory research.

‘‘That's why I love what I'm doing, because it goes between the bench and the bedside.''

Working with Cliona Rooney and other colleagues, Prof Heslop has been driven ‘‘to try to devise new therapies'' to counter problems with infections arising after bone marrow transplants.

Asked about the motivation for her work, she said ‘‘the relevance of what you're doing'' and the desire for ‘‘improving the outcome of patients'' after some earlier cases had not ‘‘ended well''.

She gave a university graduation address at Otago University in 2013 and at that ceremony received an honorary doctorate of science.

Prof Heslop is an internationally-respected leader in cellular adoptive immunotherapy, a treatment that helps the immune system fight diseases such as cancer and infections with certain viruses.

T cells are collected from a patient and grown in the laboratory.

‘‘This increases the number of T cells that are able to kill cancer cells or fight infections.

‘‘These T cells are given back to the patient to help the immune system fight disease.''

Prof Heslop has received recognition from her peers in the United States.

She served as president of the American Society of Blood and Marrow Transplantation in 2008, and is now president of the Foundation for Accreditation of Cell Therapy. Next year, she will become president of the American Society for Cell and Gene Therapy (2017-18).

‘‘Obviously, I'm honoured,'' she said of being given those presidential roles.

Prof Heslop grew up in Dunedin, attending Kaikorai Valley High School, and her parents had a strong interest in science and medicine. Her late father was surgeon John Heslop and her mother was pioneering Otago University immunologist Barbara Heslop.

Asked about other influences at Otago University, Prof Heslop says her microbiology professor Sandy Smith was ‘‘both a great teacher and a great character''.

Prof Heslop originally had aimed to be a haematologist in a New Zealand coastal city but instead she now directed ‘‘experimental cell and gene-therapy studies in a southern city in Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico''.

A haematologist is a specialist in haematology, the science of blood, blood-forming organs and blood diseases.

Her aims as a researcher and clinician are directed at ‘‘improving outcomes for patients''.

She aims to ‘‘develop cell-therapy approaches through clinical testing until they are an approved standard of care''.

‘‘I think there is a lot of promise in new immuno-oncology approaches to treat cancer.''

And what are some of the biggest challenges she faces?

‘‘Cuts in NIH [National Institutes of Health] budget for research funding, changes and complexities of US healthcare delivery,'' she says.

After graduating with an MBChB from Otago University in 1980, she later became a fellow in the department of haematology at the Royal Free Hospital in London, England (1986-89), where she researched transplantation immunology, which led to an MD from Otago in 1990.

From 1989, she was based at St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, becoming an associate professor in the department of paediatrics at the University of Tennessee, in Memphis, and an associate member at the division of bone marrow transplantation in the department of haematology-oncology at St Jude.

In 1997, she became a professor at the Centre for Cell and Gene Therapy, at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas.

But despite her busy research schedule, ‘‘I still do come back to Dunedin''. Her favourite memories of Dunedin, from student days, include views of harbour and peninsula, and going up to Central Otago.

Prof Heslop has since travelled a long way and has done many things, particularly to help improve the outlook for bone marrow transplant patients.

But she remains grateful to Otago University, for ‘‘just the quality of education that I got there, which in some ways you don't realise until you look back''.


Helen Heslop

University of Otago qualifications: Bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery (1980), and doctor of medicine (1990), honorary doctor of science (2013).

Initial Otago study years: 1975-80.

Career snapshot: Senior registrar in haematology, Canterbury Hospital Board, Christchurch; research fellow/honorary lecturer, Royal Free Hospital, London, England; assoc prof, department of paediatrics, University of Tennessee, Memphis; member, division of bone marrow transplantation, department of haematology-oncology, at St Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee; professor, Centre for Cell and Gene Therapy, department of medicine and paediatrics, at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, and now centre director.

Highlight of studying at Otago: ‘‘I had a great education there and am now on the Board of University of Otago in America to try and give back.''


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