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BCRF Grantee Since


Area(s) of Focus

Mina J. Bissell, PhD

Distinguished Scientist
Senior Advisor to the Laboratory Director
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Berkeley, California

Current Research

Metastasis is the leading cause of death in breast cancer patients. How tumor cells leave the primary tumor, how they migrate to distant organs and what happens to “awaken” them are unknown. Dr. Bissell’s laboratory pioneered the use of physiologically relevant 3D culture models they employ to identify biochemical processes of breast tumor progression, dormancy and metastasis. A major focus of her work is on enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). MMPs chop up proteins that make up tissue scaffolding, modifying the tissue architecture and changing how cells perceive their microenvironment. MMPs were early targets for cancer therapy, but there was a naïve view of their function and early attempts at MMP-directed therapuetics were unsuccessful. BCRF support of Dr. Bissell’s research led to the discovery of novel mechanisms of MMP function and regulation that occur in cell invasion. In the coming year, her team will continue to develop innovative ways of targeting MMPs in breast cancer. A related aspect of this work is in understanding how exosomes – tiny vesicles shed from the cell surface– influence breast cancer progression and metastasis. Exosomes carry growth factors, enzymes (including MMPs), RNA and DNA. Dr. Bissell’s laboratory hopes to understand the difference in the composition of exosomes shed from normal vs. malignant breast cells and how exosomes carrying different cargo affect breast epithelial cells and tumor cell dormancy. Results from these studies will provide new avenues to pursue novel therapeutic targets for breast cancer.


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.