Titles and Affiliations

Distinguished Scientist
Biological Systems and Engineering Division
Senior Advisor to the Laboratory Director
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Berkeley, California

Research area

To understand how the signals from the tumor microenvironment affect tumor growth and metastasis.


Metastasis is a major cause of breast cancer related deaths. Although recent advances in cancer research have revealed how cancer cells leave the primary site and colonize other tissues, what happens to disseminated and dormant tumor cells in the interim is poorly understood. Tissue organization and signaling from the microenvironment are important to maintain cells in a non-malignant state. Therefore, Dr. Bissell is focusing on the role of the tissue architecture and the microenvironment in the ability of dormant cancer cells to "awaken" and begin to grow and spread to other sites. They are also examining how tiny particles shed from the surface of cells—called exosomes—influence the metastatic potential of breast cancer cells. The results of her investigations will provide novel insights into the mechanism of tumorigenesis and metastasis and potential new therapeutic targets for breast cancer treatment.  

Progress Thus Far

Dr. Bissell's team has discovered that key regulators of the communication between the extracellular matrix (ECM) and cells are required for establishing proper breast tissue structure. Most recently, they identified a modified form of the tumor suppressor, p53, that is more abundant in normal compared to malignant breast cells. Their studies suggest that it  plays a role in regulating cell migration and invasion and can also compensate for the loss of p53 function when it is mutated, as frequently occurs in cancer. In their studies of exosomes, they showed that exosomes secreted from malignant cells contained more fibronectin, an ECM component shown to support tumor growth, compared to exosomes from pre-malignant cells. 

What's next

Dr. Bissell and her colleagues will continue to focus on how different versions of the p53 protein influence tissue architecture and invasion, how growth factors affect cell this process, and how exosomes participate in cell communication. They will also investigate how exosomes, which are increasingly shed with tumor progression, and the cargo they carry (growth factors, enzymes, nucleic acid, etc.) influence the behavior of cells even at distant sites of metastasis. 


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.

BCRF Investigator Since