December 13, 2018

Berkeley’s Bissell highlights Retreat for Cancer Research

Mina Bissell, PhD, gave an overview of her career at the 18th Annual Retreat for Cancer Research, detailing how she basically followed her nose to become an acclaimed scientist.


by Tom Wilemon

Mina Bissell, PhD, gave an overview of her career at the 18th Annual Retreat for Cancer Research, detailing how she basically followed her nose to become an acclaimed scientist.

Mina Bissell, PhD

Noting that the human body contains trillions of cells, she recalled looking into a mirror and wondering how these cells organize to form her nose and other parts.

“What guides them to do this?” said Bissell, Distinguished Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “And the second part of this is, how do they remember to be a nose?”

Thus, she began her quest to understand the basis of tissue and organ specificity and to distinguish why some tissues become cancerous.

She hypothesized in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the microenvironment matters — that “even a potent oncogene is context dependent” — and then showed how communication occurs between the interior of a cell and its surroundings.

Her stance that “phenotype is dominant over genotype” was controversial at that time, when the prevailing thought was that most cancers were attributable to just gene mutations or viruses. Her laboratory developed 3D assays and techniques that demonstrated how this cell communication occurs.

“It has to have receptors,” Bissell said. “The receptors have to be connected to something going on inside the cytoskeleton, and the cytoskeleton has to be connected to the nucleus. So, I dared to say, ‘There has to be a dynamic reciprocity from ECM (extracellular matrix) to chromatin.’”

Bissell has received numerous honors for her work and even has an award named after her at the University of Porto, Portugal. Throughout her career she has challenged several established paradigms and has authored more than 400 articles and studies in scientific journals. She told the younger scientists at the retreat to stay true to their research, regardless of the impact factor of the journal in which their work is published.

“I want to tell you when I show you those earlier papers that were in Nature or Science, that in those days it was much easier to publish in Nature and Science,” Bissell said. “There is life after Nature and Science. You don’t have to kill yourself to get a Cell paper, so you can have a job. We have got to change this culture. Send it to other journals. It is OK. People find out when your work is good.”

The Retreat for Cancer Research was hosted by Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) and the School of Medicine Program in Cancer Biology.

A committee of graduate students led the organization of the event on behalf of the VICC Host-Tumor Interactions Program. David Elion and Zach Sandusky served as executive chair and co-chair of the organizing committee.

The event traditionally begins with an address from a patient advocate. This year, Betsy Williams of Nashville spoke about being diagnosed with head and neck cancer in January and then undergoing surgery, six rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation. She worked with a speech therapist after having a tumor removed from the base of her tongue along with 30 lymph nodes from the left side of her neck.

“I am in awe of how much brain power and healing power there is in this room,” Williams said. “If not for you, the world would be a far different place. I thank you for your gifts and for your sharing those gifts with people like me. We are the receivers of your talents and your hard work.”

She ended her speech with a list of things for which she was grateful, including the ability to still sing. Then she sang “Simple Gifts,” the Shaker hymn composed in 1848 by Joseph Brackett.