Patricia Keely, 1963-2017

Cancer expert whose research was shaped by her experience of the disease remembered

July 13, 2017
Patricia Keely

A cancer expert whose research was shaped by her experience of the disease has died.

Patricia (“Patti”) Keely was born in March 1963 and grew up in Minneapolis-St Paul. She studied genetics and cell biology at the University of Minnesota, St Paul (1981-85), followed by a PhD in cell and developmental biology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (1986-91). As a 21-year-old undergraduate, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma after she found a lump near her neck, which was treated with both radiation and chemotherapy. It recurred while she was at graduate school, and she was initially reluctant to focus her research on cancer, but eventually her interest in cell research spurred her to look for new ways of trying to cure the disease.

After working as a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St Louis (1991-95) and the University of North Carolina (1995-97), Professor Keely was promoted to research assistant professor (1997-99) before moving on to spend the rest of her life at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Here she went on to become principal investigator of what was known as the Keely Lab as well as Jan and Kathryn Ver Hagen professor of translational research and chair of the department of cell and regenerative biology.

The work of the laboratory focuses on “understanding the impact of breast density in cancer progression” and how normal cellular interactions are “modified during carcinogenesis to result in invasive, metastatic carcinoma”. The results have been published in more than 80 papers authored or co-authored by Professor Keely.

Diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, probably caused by earlier radiation therapy, she required surgery in 2006 but remained in close touch with her laboratory during her two-month absence. Because she received contradictory advice by her doctors and was given only a 50 per cent chance of remaining disease-free, she looked closely at the available medical literature and opted to take part in the clinical trial of a new drug at the Mayo Clinic.

Professor Keely returned to work after this episode, with the eight current members of her lab regarding her as a much-loved mentor. Although well aware of the human costs of cancer and what was at stake in their research, they combined a deep dedication to scientific work with a good deal of practical joking and, only this April, held a dance party in her honour.

Professor Keely died on 24 June and is survived by her husband Tom Powell and son David Kwong.

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