October 2010

Science Focus: Mina J. Bissell

Bissell
Mina Bissell with a confocal microscope.Credit: Lawrence Berkeley Nat'l Lab - Roy Kaltschmidt, photographer.

“These findings were quite exciting to me,” she says. “Unfortunately, no one else was particularly interested, because metabolism was the last thing people wanted to hear about at that time; it was old and boring.”

Then, one day, near the end of the decade, Bissell happened to attend a most interesting lecture given by Beatrice Mintz of Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Cancer Center. In her talk, Mintz discussed studies in which she had integrated mouse cancer cells into developing mouse embryos and shown that, even though the embryos incorporated genetic material from these cancerous cells— which would readily form tumors if injected into adult animals— the mice were born healthy and happy.

The cancer signals had somehow been repressed, which Bissell believed indicated that, much like the metabolic environment, the physical environment of a cell could dictate its predilection for disease.

It was a radical concept— most scientists believed extracellular molecules like collagen merely were inert structural components— and one Bissell could not resist trying to pursue further.

***

It might have seemed unusual for a young, still somewhat-unproven researcher to take on such a hefty challenge, but family and friends who knew her during her youth in Iran, before she arrived in the U.S. in 1959 to begin her college studies at Bryn Mawr (having won a prestigious scholarship as Iran’s top high school student), probably were not surprised.

Bissell, after all, grew up in a well-to-do academic family in Tehran that had a history of going against the grain. Her father, who came from a long family line of ayatollahs, bucked the tradition of first-born sons attending divinity school and instead became a lawyer, and an agnostic to boot. Yet, this didn’t offend her grandfather, who, contrary to the image most Westerners have of these Islamic religious figures, was the most enlightened man Bissell knew.

“I mean, my grandfather’s best friend was Tehran synagogue’s head rabbi,” she says, mentioning a fact that highlights some of the misconceptions Bissell has had to deal with on occasion.

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