TAMEST Member Profile: Helen Heslop, M.D., D.Sc. (NAM), Baylor College of Medicine; TAMEST Mary Beth Maddox Award and Lectureship Committee Member
TAMEST Member Helen Heslop, M.D., D.Sc. (NAM), Baylor College of Medicine, is a physician-scientist engaged in translational research which aims to improve hemopoietic stem cell transplantation and cancer therapy. The Director of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy and Deputy Director of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center grew up in New Zealand and found medicine at an early age as the daughter of a surgeon and immunologist.
She was educated at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, where she graduated M.B. Ch.B. in 1980. She was a fellow in the Department of Hematology at Royal Free Hospital in London, England, where she conducted research into transplantation immunology, leading to the award of M.D. from Otago in 1990. She completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee and then joined the faculty there.
Dr. Heslop joined the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine in 1997 and in 2006 was named the first Dan L Duncan Chair at the institution. Dr. Heslop has extensive experience developing and conducting transplant, cell and gene therapy studies.
TAMEST connected with Dr. Heslop to learn more about her work guiding cutting-edge cancer research and gene therapy in the state of Texas and her new role on the TAMEST Mary Beth Maddox Award and Lectureship Committee.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in London but grew up in New Zealand. My parents were New Zealanders doing postgraduate training in England when I was born, just before they came home. So, at 10 days old, I boarded a ship from England back to New Zealand and was raised there.
How did you find your career path?
My career path comes down to a lot of serendipity. I think if you told me when I graduated from medical school where I would end up that I would be totally surprised.
In my trainee intern year, which is our last year of medical school in New Zealand, the class was told to make five-year plans and I’ve always done that. The beginning of my career went as expected. I got my initial postgraduate qualifications in New Zealand and went to England to get some more experience in bone marrow transplantation. However, I then diverged from my original plan of returning to New Zealand and came to the United States because of the opportunity for additional research experience.
What made you decide to live and do your research in Texas?
I initially went to England after growing up and going to school in New Zealand because I was interested in bone marrow transplantation, and I did some clinical work and research there.
I had the opportunity to go back to New Zealand after about three years in England. However, I would have had to go back to doing much more general hematology, and I wasn’t ready to do that. So, I said no to a faculty job in New Zealand, which was unusual because faculty positions don’t come up as often as they do here.
Instead, I decided I would come to the United States and get some more research experience. I went to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital where I was able to combine clinical bone marrow transplantation with developing cell therapy strategies in the laboratory. We were seeing a high incidence of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) lymphoma in our transplant patients, and I collaborated with Dr. Cliona Rooney, a laboratory scientist with expertise in EBV virology and immunology, to develop a strategy to administer EBV specific T cells to prevent and treat EBV lymphomas.
This approach was very successful, and we subsequently extended it to more viruses in collaboration with Dr. Ann Maire Leen. Then the Director of our center, TAMEST Member Malcolm K. Brenner, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM), was recruited down to Baylor College of Medicine by the late Dr. Ralph Feigin, who was President and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine at the time.
Malcolm persuaded a lot of us in the group that the opportunities at Baylor College of Medicine would enable us to extend our studies to adult patients and make a broader impact. We also felt there were a lot of potential people to collaborate with and that Houston would be a good move. As I’ve been here now for 25 years, I guess it was the right decision!
Tell us about your research.
I’m interested in immunotherapy, mainly to treat lymphoma and other hematologic malignancies, but also to treat viral infections in patients with cancer.
I’m at the stage of my career where I’m more on the administrative side writing programmatic grants and serving as an IND sponsor for a lot of younger investigators who are developing novel first-in-human cell therapy strategies. I currently lead the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston Methodist Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital. We have around 20 open studies at any one time of genetically modified T and other immune cells in hematologic malignancies and other cancers.
You mentioned that you are the Director of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy with Baylor College of Medicine, Houston Methodist Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital. Tell us more about the mission of the Center and the vital research coming out of it.
The goal of the Center is to translate the very strong basic science at Baylor College of Medicine into clinical trials of cell therapy in our clinical units at Houston Methodist Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital.
You recently profiled my 2023 TAMEST Protégé Maksim Mamonkin, Ph.D., Baylor College of Medicine, who’s an example of a young investigator at the Center who’s focused on developing strategies in T cell malignancies where there is a large unmet clinical need.
However, we have many other studies targeting other cancers, infectious diseases as well as studies trying to improve the outcome of transplants. We rely on a very strong clinical research infrastructure led by Bambi Grilley and our GMP facility where we manufacture vectors and cells led by Dr. Adrian Gee, Dr. Natalia Lapteva and Dr. Zhuyong Mei.
I think with some of the newer technology, like gene editing and in vivo delivery, the Center’s mission will continue to grow.
What makes you most passionate?
Translating approaches developed in the laboratory for use in the clinic makes me passionate. If I think about the most satisfying things in my career, it was when we’ve opened a new protocol and saw clinical benefits in patients.
Then, that translates to you getting Christmas cards and hearing from patients you treated long ago that have grown up or grown older and have long-term control of their cancer.
As a renowned physician-scientist and cancer therapy pioneer, you were asked to serve on the award committee for TAMEST’s Mary Beth Maddox Award and Lectureship. Why did you say yes to serving on the committee?
I said I would join the committee because I think it’s a very nice program. I actually know Dr. Nancy Huang, Texas A&M Health, who was the first award recipient in 2022 as she had a developmental project on our lymphoma SPORE (Specialized Programs of Research Excellence) grant from the National Cancer Institute.
The award and lectureship are a great way of recognizing early career investigators and hopefully promoting their career progression. It also allows the recipient to travel to other cancer institutions in Texas to enhance collaboration and networking.
After the orientation meeting, I learned more about Mary Beth Maddox and realized it is also a very appropriate program to honor her and her contributions to TAMEST. We’re certainly looking forward to hosting 2023 Recipient Dr. Florencia McAllister, MD Anderson Cancer Center, at the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center early next year.
Talk about why it is vital to highlight specifically women in cancer research.
Historically, women have had more challenges in research. A lot of women in the early stages of their careers are also juggling family commitments with their research laboratories. I also appreciate that this award has a broad eligibility from very basic research to more translational research.
This year, your TAMEST protégé, Dr. Maksim Mamonkin, participated and won the 2023 Protégé Poster Challenge with his poster, Developing CAR-T Therapies for Patients with T-Cell Leukemia and Lymphoma. Talk about the experience.
We are very proud because Dr. Malcolm Brenner and I talked about who we would nominate. I nominated Max and he nominated Dr. Valentina Hoyos, Baylor College of Medicine, who was also a top five finalist.
I was really pleased when I got the first email from Max that both were finalists, and then, obviously, delighted that Max won the award.
I think both Max and Valentina got a lot out of the conference with networking and meeting not only contemporaries, but also senior scientists in not just their own field, but other fields as well.
Why should TAMEST members nominate and bring a protégé to the TAMEST conference?
I encourage all TAMEST members to nominate someone. I think it’s a great experience for the protégés who go to the conference, and it also makes the conference more interesting for the TAMEST members.
It’s great to have a diverse audience and to have a variety of protégés present.
What does being a mentor mean to you?
If it’s a good mentoring relationship, you learn as much from your mentee as they learn from you. So, I think if it’s a good fit, the relationship is mutually beneficial.
I also suggest that any trainee or junior faculty identify several mentors to cover all their needs.
What does being a member of TAMEST mean to you?
It was a great honor to be elected to the National Academy of Medicine, making me eligible for TAMEST. I have found the meetings to be interesting, and enjoyed learning about some research areas such as engineering that are outside my normal area of expertise.
It’s also an excellent networking opportunity to promote science within Texas and develop programs like the Mary Beth Maddox Award and Lectureship.
Helen Heslop, M.D., D.Sc. (NAM) is the Dan L Duncan Chair and Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. She is also the Director of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston Methodist Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital, and the Deputy Director of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine.