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BCRF Investigator Dr. Mina Bissell Receives Lifetime Achievement Award at AACR Annual Meeting 2017

By BCRF | April 2, 2017

From the alphabet of genes to the language of structure and form, Dr. Bissell changed our view of cancer

During the opening ceremony of its annual meeting, the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) presented BCRF investigator, Dr. Mina Bissell the Fourteenth Annual AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research. Dr. Bissell is being honored for her pioneering work in mammary gland architecture and its role in tumor development and progression. Dr. Bissell’s work, which includes the development of three dimensional laboratory models to study mammary gland architecture, is widely recognized for launching the tumor microenvironment field.

In her award lecture titled, “Why Don’t We Get More Cancer”, Dr. Bissell recapped the milestones of her 40-year career in research that led to paradigm shifts in how scientists view the driving forces of cancer.

“Context rules over genes,” she said in explaining how malignant cells, driven by mutations in cancer promoting genes, will grow and form a tumor in one type of environment but not another.

It was this very early discovery that led her down the path to developing 3-dimensional laboratory models of the mammary gland–an effort that would take nearly 20 years in the lab–in order to understand how the microenvironment and tissue architecture influence the fate of a tumor cell.

Because of her relentless efforts and determination, we understand much more about the dynamic interplay between signaling molecules within the tissue microenvironment, architecture and the epithelial cells that make up the mammary ducts, and how these complex signaling networks regulate normal development and cancer growth.

For BCRF Scientific Director Dr. Larry Norton Bissell’s career brings to mind the Japanese proverb,”There are many trails on Mt. Fuji but they all lead to the top.”

“Most successful scientists take the well-trod straight path, visible to all. Mina chose the scenic route, wandering through undiscovered terrain and finding glorious vistas and unique treasures along the way,” Norton says. “As we congratulate her we must also acknowledge our debt to her for blazing new trails of great beauty and lasting value to all who follow.”

Dr. Bissell’s lab continues to study the communication within the microenvironment and tissue architecture. “We know the alphabet, the phrases and the language of the genome,” she said. “We are only just beginning to dissect the alphabet of structure and form.”

In more recent work, her group has identified previously masked signaling between the cell nucleus and structural proteins in the tissue that provide new targets to block cancer growth.

Looking back with some deserved aplomb, Dr. Bissell recounted a time when skepticism from the research community made it difficult for her to publish her findings. Addressing the early career scientists in the audience, she stressed: “Believe in yourself and have the courage to stick to your convictions.”

“Most importantly,” she said, “Don’t believe what I say because I say it; Do your work to disprove it.”

Dr. Bissell joins two other BCRF investigators in receiving the AACR Lifetime Achievement Award: Dr. Robert Weinberg (2016) and Dr. Susan Horwitz (2011).