October 2010

Science Focus: Mina J. Bissell


A look at ASBMB member Mina J. Bissell and use of 3-D cell culture to look at the involvement of tissue architecture and microenvironment in the progression of cancer. (Titled "Mina J. Bissell: Going the Extra Mile… and Dimension" in print version.)

Science-Focus---BissellIn 1992, Mina J. Bissell found herself in an unusual position.

She had just been appointed director of all the life sciences at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California and thus also had been placed in charge of LBNL’s genome center, which recently had begun sequencing portions of human DNA for the Human Genome Project.

Having LBNL play a central role in such an ambitious endeavor could be considered an honor, but Bissell was troubled: “I remember even before the genome was completed, almost everyone who was talking about the project was promising that it would simplify science and medicine, cure all diseases and answer all our questions.”

“And, I remember telling them over and over again that it was not so simple,” she adds.

For one thing, why would her colleagues want to make science simple? “For me, at least, the beauty of science has always been its complexity,” she says. “Every question you answer opens up more exciting questions, more riddles to solve. The sequence of the genome has opened up a whole host of other questions.”

“And, besides, how would the complete genome solve developmental and cell biology questions? An eye and a nose have the exact same genome in an individual, so, why are they so different? The sequence alone won’t answer that.”

Fiery, passionate and certainly not afraid to upset the scientific apple cart is a brief, but apt, description of Mina Bissell.

In fact, Bissell, a distinguished scientist at LBNL, where she has been since 1972, has spent her entire career challenging traditional views. Fortunately, another of her qualities is doggedness, which is vital, for the scientific establishment puts a heavy burden of proof on those who wish to challenge tradition. And, in Bissell’s arena of cancer research, the prevailing view for more than 30 years has been that the “gene is king,” and even single mutations dictate cancer incidence and progression.

Bissell, though, has been working tirelessly to prove that the king needs to share his throne. Using an integrative approach that combines an ingenious 3-D cell-culture system with other molecular biology, imaging and high-throughput methodologies, she has demonstrated that a tissue’s architecture and its surrounding microenvironment— such as cell-cell interactions and the extracellular matrix— are just as important in cancer progression as the genetic alterations within.


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