Mina J. Bissell

Why don’t we get more cancer?

November 8, 2012

Mina J. Bissell, Ph.D., is an Iranian-American biologist and a world-recognized leader in the area of the role of extracellular matrix and microenvironment in regulation of tissue-specific function, with special emphasis on breast cancer.

She was born in Tehran, Iran, and brought up in a well-educated and well-to-do family. By the time she graduated from high school, Bissell was the top graduate in her year. A family friend, through the American Friends of Iran, encouraged Bissell to come to the United States. She enrolled at Bryn Mawr, then transferred to Radcliffe College where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She obtained a doctorate in bacteriology from Harvard Medical School and was awarded an American Cancer Society postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley.

She joined Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory as a staff biochemist in 1972 and subsequently became a senior scientist, director of cell & molecular biology, director of the life sciences division and distinguished scientist. In 1996, she received the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award and medal, the highest scientific honor bestowed by the Department of Energy. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, Bissell is recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Mellon Award from the University of Pittsburgh, the Eli Lilly/Clowes Award of the American Association for Cancer Research and the Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2010, one of the highest honors bestowed on working scientists.

She is the former head of life sciences at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Her work started more than 30 years ago on the effect of tissue architecture and the role of the cellular microenvironment on cancer has become increasingly influential in the field of cancer biology and cancer therapeutics. She is credited with the radical but increasingly accepted notion that phenotype can dominate over genotype in normal development and disease.

Bissell and her colleague, William Ole Peterson, have developed 3-D culture in cancer research. They have shown non-tumorgenic (normal-like) mammary epithelial cells form monolayer spherical acini with hollow lumen and tumorgenic mammary epithelial cells form filled bowl irregular acini (Petersen OW, et al. PNAS 89(19):9064-9068 ). She has published about 300 articles and book chapters.