Written by Katharine Q. Seelye
Dr. Beatrice Mintz, a cancer researcher whose many groundbreaking discoveries included the pivotal discovery that certain cancer cells could be tamed by contact with normal neighboring cells, without the use of harsh treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy, has died. on January 3 at her home in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. She was 100 years old.
The cause was heart failure after a long battle with dementia, said Bob Spallone, his executor and colleague at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where Dr. Mintz was on staff for more than 60 years.
Mintz was an embryologist whose work spanned multiple disciplines, and her pioneering contributions proved essential in helping researchers unravel some of the complexities of how cancer works.
“She made fundamental discoveries and revolutionized many molecular biology tools and techniques that paved the way for enormous advances in our understanding of cancer,” said Margaret Foti, executive director of the American Association for Cancer Research. cancer, in a statement.
Mintz’s experiments attracted attention as early as 1964, shortly after she joined the Cancer Research Institute, now part of Fox Chase.
Among her notable early accomplishments was her work in 1968 in which she bred “multi-mice”, that is, mice with two fathers and two mothers. She took cells from a pair of white mice and cells from a pair of black mice and implanted them into a surrogate mother mouse. The offspring came out striped – a clear expression of genetic characteristics that would allow scientists to study genes in a way that had not been possible before.
In another important experiment, she introduced foreign DNA into mouse embryos. This “transgenic” technology has allowed scientists to create genetically adapted mice, an invaluable tool that has helped transform biomedical research.
“This simple experiment was the progenitor of all the mouse cancer models we have,” said Dr. Jonathan Chernoff, director of the Fox Chase Cancer Center, in an interview.
Perhaps his most profound discovery was his demonstration in 1968 that certain deadly cancer cells could be inserted into mouse embryos and, to everyone’s surprise, a normal mouse would develop. It wasn’t that neighboring cells were killing cancer cells; instead, they somehow instructed the cancer cells to return to a benign state and then helped make a normal mouse.
“It was groundbreaking,” Chernoff said. “The implications were that the tumors were not always self-contained, that they were in constant dialogue with the cells around them and that they reacted to their environment,” which could either make the cancer worse or control it.
This suggests that nearby tissue might help tame tumor cells more gently than radiation or chemotherapy. Drugs designed to mimic these normalizing effects are now part of many cancer treatment regimens.
An elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, Mintz has won numerous prestigious prizes and awards. They included the National Medal of Honor for Basic Research from the American Cancer Society, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for Cancer Research, and the first March of Dimes Award in Developmental Biology, which she shared with Ralph L. Brinster in 1996.
Many of her colleagues thought her work deserved a Nobel Prize and she was nominated twice. John R. Durant, the former chairman of Fox Chase, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986 that she probably would have won “if she had been a better politician.”
Mintz was known for having a demanding personality and for setting exacting standards that few others could meet.
At one point, she considered contributing to an endowed chair in her name that would be reserved for a female scientist, she told Chernoff, but then added that she couldn’t think of anyone who would qualify.
“She was a throwback to an earlier type of independent solo artist,” Chernoff said. “She did everything herself, built her own equipment, injected microscopic mouse eggs herself and personally took care of all her mice, which was probably better because she would notice key details that would otherwise have been overlooked. to detection.”
On the rare occasions when she hired assistants or postdoctoral fellows, she would show them a map of the neighborhood, draw a mile-wide circle with her lab in the center, and ask them to live in the circle; they had to be readily available.
Despite a reputation for spiciness, she also knew how to be generous. When a colleague brought her 7-year-old daughter to work one day, Mintz took the girl aside and talked to her for two hours about how she had become a scientist, which was almost by accident.
Beatrice Mintz was born on January 24, 1921 in the Bronx, the youngest of four children. His parents, Samuel and Janie (Stein) Mintz, had migrated first to London and then to New York from the small town of Mikulintsy, which used to be part of Austrian Galicia and is now part of Ukraine. In New York, her father worked for a time in the garment industry as a presser, ironing clothes.
Beatrice, known as Bea, skipped a few grades in school and went to Hunter College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her freshman year. She planned to study art history, but then took a biology class, liked her teacher, and became so intrigued by the subject that she majored in it. She graduated magna cum laude in 1941. She studied for a year at New York University, then did her graduate work at the University of Iowa, where she received her master’s degree in 1944 and a doctorate in 1946.
Her first job was as an instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Chicago from 1946 to 1960. During this time she studied in France on a Fulbright scholarship. But she preferred doing basic research to teaching, and in 1960 she transferred to Fox Chase, where she remained on the faculty until her death. She was also an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
She had no immediate survivors. Spallone, her executor, said in an interview that she left her estate to tracing organizations.
Mintz remained an art enthusiast. While in France, she bought several signed Picasso prints and hung them in her home (she had two apartments, one near her lab). She also wrote poetry, mostly about mice, but felt the poems weren’t good enough for public consumption, so she kept them in a desk drawer.
She had one of her first “multi-mice” stuffed by a taxidermist, as a sort of trophy. But the taxidermist had put him in a stalking pose which she said was unnatural. It also went into a desk drawer.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.