Pioneering Cancer Researcher Mina Bissell Receives Two Top Honors

Mina Bissell, a distinguished scientist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), has been selected to receive two prestigious awards for her pioneering contributions to breast cancer biology and medicine.

In recognition of her lifetime achievements, including her extraordinary insights into how a cell’s local environment impacts gene expression and tumor formation, the American Philosophical Society (APS) has chosen Bissell as the recipient of the Jonathan E. Rhoads Gold Medal for Distinguished Service to Medicine. The honor is given only once every three years.

Past recipients include celebrated and highly decorated scientists such as Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Murray, National Medal of Science winner Thomas Starzl, and French Légion d’honneur recipient Elias Zerhouni. The medal will be presented Nov. 8, at the APS’s 2019 Fall meeting in Philadelphia.

In recognition of her trailblazing career as a woman in STEM, Bissell was selected by the Weizmann Institute of Science as one of two recipients of the 2019 Weizmann Women & Science Award. She will accept the award and give a lecture at a ceremony in Israel later this year.

"I am extremely honored to be the recipient of these important awards," said Bissell, "and I look forward to thanking my colleagues in person in Philadelphia and Israel."  

Bissell came from a highly educated family and was ranked as the top high school student in her native country of Iran, which earned her a fellowship to attend college abroad. Despite her father’s urging that she go to Cambridge or Oxford universities in England - he told her that America was a young country and did not yet know how to educate women - she chose to study at Radcliffe College, a women’s institution that was the sister school to formerly all-male Harvard College.

After completing a chemistry degree, she was one of only three women admitted to Harvard Medical School, alongside 200 men. Despite social pressure to put her higher learning on hold when she had her first child, Bissell continued her studies and continued to excel. She earned a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics in 1969 and then joined a cancer cell biology lab at UC Berkeley. In 1972, she was hired as a staff biochemist at Berkeley Lab and given the opportunity to lead her own team.

Her subsequent research challenged existing dogma by showing that malignant cells behave much differently in a culture than they do in a body. Bissell’s "Dynamic Reciprocity" model asserts that the support molecules within tissues communicate directly with local cells, thus altering gene expression. Though it faced considerable initial skepticism, her model has amassed impressive supporting evidence in the 40 years since it was first proposed, and has led to an ever-growing number of advances in the understanding and treatment of cancer.