Mina J. Bissell. (Credit: Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab)

Mina Bissell, distinguished senior scientist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), is one of five recipients of the 2020 Canada Gairdner International Award – an annual honor given to scientists who have contributed to transformative human health research.

Bissell was recognized for helping to shift the paradigm in the understanding of cancer by showing that both malignant and normal cells are engaged in a continuous, two-way interaction with their microenvironment within the body. Her pioneering work on this phenomenon, called “dynamic reciprocity,” revealed that tumor cells grown in culture or otherwise isolated in a lab do not behave the same way they would in a patient.

First proposed almost 40 years ago, Bissell’s model has since been thoroughly established in cell and cancer biology. According to the Gairdner Foundation, the implications of dynamic reciprocity have permeated every area of cell and cancer biology. “Her findings have had profound implications for cancer therapy by demonstrating that tumor cells can be influenced by their environment and are not just the product of their genetic mutations. For example, cells from the mammary glands grown in 2D tissue cultures rapidly lose their identity, but once placed in proper 3D microenvironments, they regain mammary form and function. This work presages the current excitement about generation of 3D tissue organoids and demonstrates Dr. Bissell’s creative and innovative approach to science.”

The Gairdner Foundation was established by businessman and philanthropist James A. Gairdner in 1957, with the goal of recognizing and supporting scientists whose seminal discoveries and major scientific contributions constitute an original and significant achievement in biomedical science. Since then, 387 scientists from 35 countries have received the award. Of these, 92 have gone on to win Nobel Prizes. Past Gairdner International Award recipients include Jennifer Doudna (of UC Berkeley) and Emmanuelle Charpentier, whose collaboration led to the discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system; James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA; Elizabeth Blackburn, who described the function of telomeres and co-discovered telomerase; Anthony Fauci, the current head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Stanley Prusiner, a neurologist who discovered the cause of prion diseases.

In addition to the recent recognition, Bissell has also received the American Philosophical Society’s Jonathan E. Rhoads Gold Medal for Distinguished Service to Medicine, the 2019 Weizmann Women & Science Award, the American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor, the U.S. Department of Defense’s First Innovator Award in Breast Cancer, the American Society of Cell Biology’s Wilson Medal, and was the inaugural recipient of the Berkeley Lab Lifetime Achievement Prize, among many others. She has been elected to the American Philosophical Society, National Academy of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Bissell received a Ph.D. in bacterial genetics from Harvard University in 1969, after which she received fellowships to conduct postdoctoral work at the Department of Virology and Molecular Biology at UC Berkeley. In 1972, she was recruited as a staff biochemist at Berkeley Lab and given the opportunity to lead her own team focused on cancer biology. During her time at Berkeley Lab, she served as the founding Director of the Cell and Molecular Biology Division and the Associate Laboratory Director of Life Sciences (which then included the Human Genome Program). When she stepped down from this role in 2001, she was given the rank of distinguished senior scientist, the highest academic rank at the Lab. Bissell also currently serves as faculty at four graduate groups at UC Berkeley.


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Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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