October 2010

Science Focus: Mina J. Bissell

Bissell - Diagram

A recent JBC study by Mina J. Bissell’s group found that ECM regulation of mammary cell gene expression requires the cooperation of the SWI/SNF complex and other transcription factors, as shown in this proposed model of activity. From Xu, R., et al. (2007) J. Biol. Chem. 282, 14992-14999.

“I’ve had people comment that they’re impressed I’ve managed to succeed in my career considering I grew up a woman in the Middle East,” she says.

“And, I always correct them and say I succeeded precisely because I grew up in the environment I did.”

She points out that, prior to the Islamic revolution, Iran featured Muslims, Christians, Jews, Armenians— you name it— all co-existing with very little bias. Likewise, gender discrimination was not a serious issue, at least in large cities. (Even today, despite the changes in government, Bissell notes Iran is a highly educated country and that women make up an equal percentage of the students in hard sciences, and, at Tehran University, 50 percent of faculty are women.)

“My family always told me that I could become whatever I dreamed of,” she says, adding that her father did advise her to stay away from law, because “he knew that fundamental religion was penetrating the legal system, and I might encounter some prejudice against me, which, given my nature, I would fight vigorously and get into more trouble.”

Years later, that desire to stand up for her beliefs would be tested in the scientific arena.

***

Together with postdoctoral fellow David Dolberg, Bissell continued her studies with oncogenes and changes in the microenvironment by testing whether RSV could transform chicken embryos. It was well-known that if RSV was injected into an adult chicken wing, it formed a tumor; however, when they injected the virus into developing chicken embryos, no tumors formed. But, more intriguingly, if those injected embryo wings were separated into individual cells and put in a dish, they would become cancerous again.

The team looked at another RSV-related fact— that viral administration typically only produced tumors near the site of injection, even though the chickens had viral particles circulating in their blood. However, if they wounded infected chickens at other locations, those sites also could develop tumors, which they determined were not due to metastasis. Subsequently, with another student, Michael Siewke, she demonstrated that a wound-response protein, TGF-β, mediated this postinjury tumor formation.

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