October 2010

Science Focus: Mina J. Bissell

Particularly because Bissell believed— and showed — that changing the extracellular environment could help prevent the spread of cancer, even by genetically defective cells.

These were frustrating times, but, Bissell states definitively, “I was not raised to be a quitter.”

She certainly did not quit when she became pregnant during her first year of graduate studies at Harvard in 1963— the medical school had only three female students and 200 males, and most everyone assumed she would drop out. And, she wouldn’t quit now.

Slowly, with continued determination and persistence, aided by former lab members who helped spread her ideas to other institutes and “a few wonderful colleagues,” Bissell’s ideas became more accepted.

Indeed, the past few years have seen her receive many honors as a testament to this, such as election to the Institute of Medicine, American Academy of Arts and Sciences and, more recently, both the American Philosophical Society (2007) and National Academy of Sciences (2010). She also has received the Pezcoller Foundation-American Association for Cancer Research International Award for Cancer Research (2007); the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Excellence in Science Award (2008), the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor (2008) and, recently, her own “Mina J. Bissell” Award, which will be presented every two years by the University of Porto in Portugal.

With her newfound recognition, Bissell has been quite busy on the lecture circuit; even though she says she only can accept about one of every four speaking invitations, she still feels like she’s continually on the go. Still, she uses that time to relate her story and encourage others, especially young scientists, to follow their own scientific ideas and not get discouraged by setbacks.

“Innovative people always have to prove themselves, so stay with it and don’t let the establishment tell you what to do,” is one of her mantras, usually followed by a wink and nod to her own recent success.

“Of course, now that my work has been accepted, I guess I’m part of the establishment too, so I guess you shouldn’t listen to me either.”


Bissell, M. J., White, R. C., Hatie, C., and Bassham, J. A. (1973) Dynamics of Metabolism of Normal and Virus-transformed Chick Cells in Culture. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 70, 2951 – 2955.

Dolberg, D. S., and Bissell, M. J. (1984) Inability of Rous Sarcoma Virus to Cause Sarcomas in the Avian Embryo. Nature 309, 552 – 556.

Dolberg, D. S., Hollingsworth, R., Hertle, M., and Bissell, M. J. (1985) Wounding and Its Role in RSV-mediated Tumor Formation. Science 230, 676 – 678.

Barcellos-Hoff, M. H., Aggeler, J., Ram, T. G., and Bissell, M. J. (1989) Functional Differentiation and Alveolar Morphogenesis of Primary Mammary Cultures on Reconstituted Basement Membrane. Development 105, 223 – 235.

Weaver, V. M., Petersen, O. W., Wang, F., Larabell, C. A., Briand, P., Damsky, C., and Bissell, M. J. (1997) Reversion of the Malignant Phenotype of Human Breast Cells in Three-dimensional Culture and In Vivo by Integrin-blocking Antibodies. J. Cell Biol. 137, 231 – 245.

Sternlicht, M. D., Lochter, A., Sympson, C. J., Huey, B., Rougier, J. P., Gray, J. W., Pinkel, D., Bissell, M. J., and Werb, Z. (1999) The Stromal Proteinase MMP3/Stromelysin-1 Promotes Mammary Carcinogenesis. Cell 98, 137 – 146.

Nick Zagorski (nzagorski@asbmb.org) is a science writer at ASBMB.

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