Mina Bissell Wins E.O. Lawrence Award

February 7, 1997

By Lynn Yarris, [email protected]

Mina Bissell, director of the Lab's Life Sciences Division, has been named one of seven winners of the 1996 E.O. Lawrence Award by the Department of Energy.
Mina Bissell
Bissell, a cell biologist, was honored in the Life Sciences category for identifying the extracellular matrix (ECM), a network of fibrous and globular proteins that surround and support breast cells as a crucial regulator of normal and malignant breast cell functions.

The citation on the award will read, "For her seminal and pioneering contributions to our understanding of the extracellular matrix and microenvironment in differentiation, programmed cell death, and cancer."

The Lawrence Award was established in 1959 to honor the memory of the late Ernest Orlando Lawrence, winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the cyclotron, and founder of the national laboratories in Berkeley and Livermore that bear his name today. The awards are given annually in seven categories for outstanding contributions in the field of atomic energy, broadly defined. Winners receive a gold medal, a citation and $15,000. Nominations were screened by independent review panels and recommended to DOE by an interagency awards committee.

"The work of these scientists and engineers highlights the dividends that the American people are earning on their investment in research," said acting Energy Secretary Charles Curtis, who named the seven on Feb. 5. "The winners have made contributions to our economy, our national security, our health and safety, and our understanding of the universe around us. We are particularly pleased that the independent review panels chose five of the seven winners from the DOE family."

Bissell is a native of Iran, where she graduated as that nation's top high school student and won a scholarship to study abroad. She chose to attend Bryn Mawr, where she studied chemistry before transferring to Radcliffe. While a senior at Radcliffe she won the medal of the American Institute of Chemists. She earned her Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics from Harvard University, and came to the University of California's Berkeley campus to do post-doctoral research in cell biology and virology. She joined the Berkeley Lab staff in 1972 and was named director of the Cell and Molecular Biology Division in 1988. She became director of the newly formed Life Sciences Division in 1992.

Her training in chemistry and molecular genetics stimulated an interest in understanding how cells develop, which led her off the beaten track of cancer research and onto a somewhat unorthodox approach. While most cancer researchers were searching for new types of oncogenes (cancerous genes carried by viruses), Bissell began studying the behavior of healthy and malignant cells in culture with an eye on the relationship between function and morphology--the changes in structure and form that a cell undergoes as it develops. Her ultimate idea was to define precisely what for cells is "normal."

Her research led her to postulate in 1979 that viral carcinogenesis, analogous to chemical carcinogenesis, was a multi-step process and that the activity of a single oncogene was not sufficient to cause cancer. In 1981, she further proposed that the ECM was a "signalling" molecule crucial for the normal functioning of cells. By implication then, loss or damage of the ECM could lead to malignancy. Both ideas were considered heretical at the time but have since been proven correct.

In the case of the ECM, conventional scientific wisdom held that it serves as nothing more than an inert scaffold upon which cells grow and develop. Experiments by Bissell and her collaborators, however, demonstrated that cancerous breast cells grow at the same rate as healthy cells when placed in standard cultures, and that both quickly take on the flat appearance of generalized tissue cells.

If ECM is added to the culture, however, the healthy breast cells once again become organized and begin secreting milk, while the cancerous cells once again grow wildly into a tumorous mass.

It is now widely accepted by cancer research experts that the ECM is a dynamic player in cell growth and development as well as in the spread of cancer and other aberrations.

Bissell has received many honors throughout her career, including the first Joseph Sadusk Award for Breast Cancer Research. She was elected as a AAAS Fellow and also serves on the editorial boards of several scientific journals, including "Cancer Research," and is currently president of the American Society for Cell Biology.

Another local Lawrence Award winner was Charles Alcock, an astrophysicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who is also affiliated with the Center for Particle Astrophysics. Alcock won for his "dark matter" research into Massive Compact Halo Objects. Other winners included Thom Dunning, a theoretical chemist at Pacific Northwest Laboratories; Charles Jakowatz Jr., an electrical engineer at Sandia National Laboratory; Sunil Sinha, a materials engineer at Argonne National Lab; Theofanis Theofanous, a nuclear engineer at UC Santa Barbara; and Jorge Valdes, a chemical engineer with Lucent Technologies, a private firm in New Jersey.

The 1996 Lawrence Awards will be presented at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. this spring.

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