In addition to her work uncovering the role of the microenvironment in cancer, Mina J. Bissell has been examining other aspects of its regulation, such as how the ECM, ECM regulatory proteins and tissue geometry influence mammary gland branching and morphogenesis.
One would imagine that, given the remarkable nature of Bissell’s early findings, her pioneering studies with three-dimensional mammary models would establish quickly the importance of the ECM in cell physiology.
However, although scientists often like to think of themselves as a progressive lot, in many ways, science— notably basic academic science— is a conservative field. Discoveries are made in steady, incremental steps, whereas funding agencies tend to favor established scientists providing safe, tractable projects.
So, for many years, Bissell struggled with National Institutes of Health funding, picking up grants from other agencies (especially the Office of Biological and Environmental Research at the U.S. Department of Energy) willing to take a risk on an innovative idea, while also failing to get a significant foothold in the cancer community at large. Even now, she notes, most textbooks still mention the ECM purely as a structural component.
“People can be set in their ways sometimes, and science is no different,” she notes. “I think this might have been especially true in the early days of the molecular biology era, with the new techniques that broke research down into simple pieces. Either your gel had a band, or it didn’t; a cell had a functional copy of a gene, or it didn’t. People didn’t step back and consider broader possibilities.”
Another influencing factor, Bissell believes, was the growing commercialization of science in the 1980s and beyond. “Now, all of a sudden, a lot of good scientists were spinning their discoveries into businesses and had tangible investments in their products. And, if you have a gene that may be crucial in cancer development, you don’t want to hear someone else saying all this stuff outside the cell is important.”