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Mina J. Bissell, PhD
Senior Advisor to the Laboratory Director
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Goal: To understand the interactions between tumor cells and non-tumor cells and how they affect tumor growth.
Impact: Dr. Bissell is investigating the ways in which dormant cancer cells are “awakened” in patients who have been treated for breast cancer and how they spread to other sites in the body. Her laboratory findings may reveal strategies to reduce breast cancer recurrence and metastasis.
What’s next: She and her team will continue to focus on exosomes—tiny particles shed from the surface of cells—and the role they play in tumor progression and metastasis.
Complex interactions occur in the network of cells and structures that surround a tumor (the microenvironment) that can prevent or promote tumor growth and spread. Dr. Bissell is studying how signals from the tissue and tumor microenvironment affect the signaling pathways inside breast cells that cause them to become malignant and what can be done to stop or reverse this process.
Full Research Summary
Research area: Identifying potential targets to prevent or treat the spread of breast cancer.
Impact: Once breast cancer has spread to other tissues in the body, it is incurable. The process by which this occurs, metastasis, is the leading cause of death in breast cancer patients. Dr. Bissell is studying the interactions between tumor cells and non-tumor cells that take place in the area around the tumor (the microenvironment) and the role they play in preventing and promoting tumor growth and spread. Her findings could provide novel avenues for therapies.
Current investigation: Using physiologically relevant 3-D culture models of breast cancer pioneered by her laboratory, Dr. Bissell and her team are studying how the tissue architecture signals to keep breast cells in a non-malignant state and what goes wrong to allow cancer progression and the awakening of dormant cancer cells. They are particularly interested in exosomes, which are tiny lipid particles shed from the cell surface. Shedding of exosomes increases with tumor progression, and the cargo they carry (growth factors, enzymes, nucleic acid, etc.) influences the behavior of cells even at distant sites of metastasis.
What she’s accomplished so far: Dr. Bissell and her colleagues used their 3-D culture models to understand mechanisms driving cancer progression. They focused on how isoforms of the p53 protein influence tissue architecture and invasion, how growth factors affect cell behavior, and how exosomes participate in cell communication.
What’s next: The team will continue to investigate how signals from the tissue and tumor microenvironment affect the signaling pathways inside breast cells and cause them to become malignant, as well as identify ways to stop or reverse this process.
Dr. Bissell has been a visionary and pioneer in the area of the role of extracellular matrix (ECM) and microenvironment in regulation of tissue-specific gene expression with special emphasis in breast cancer, where she has changed a number of established paradigms. She earned an AB with honors in chemistry from Harvard College and a PhD in bacterial genetics from Harvard University. She joined the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1972, became Director of Cell & Molecular Biology in 1988, and was appointed Director of all of Life Sciences in 1992. Upon stepping down as the Life Sciences Division Director, she was named Distinguished Scientist. She has authored more than 380 publications, is a member of nine international scientific boards, and is on the editorial board of a dozen scientific journals. She has given more than 130 ‘named and distinguished’ lectures and was both a Fogarty and Guggenheim Fellow. She is a recipient of numerous awards and honors including the E.O. Lawrence Award, Medal of Honor of the American Cancer Society and the Pezcoller-AACR award.
Dr. Bissell is an elected Fellow of the AAAS, the IOM, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Philosophical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the National Academy of Sciences and the AACR Academy. She has received honorary doctorates from Pierre & Marie Curie University in Paris and the University of Copenhagen. She received BCRF's Jill Rose Award for research excellence in 2011.