Helen M. Blau | PAS Academician

Commemoration of Prof. Beatriz Mintz

Beatrice Mintz was a pioneer. She earned her PhD from the University of Iowa in the 1940s. She then accepted a professorship at the University of Chicago before transitioning to the Fox Chase Cancer Research Center in 1960 so that she could exclusively focus on her research. She spent much time in the lab, building her own equipment and conducting most of her experiments personally. She was known for being efficient, organized, and self-sufficient, and for being a demanding but kind and supportive mentor. She delighted her coworkers with poetry featuring mice and by building mouse snowmen.

Mintz established herself as a thought leader in multiple fields, most notably developmental biology and cancer research. She would pose large questions and answer them. Much of her developmental biology work revolved around how complex tissues could arise from a single cell. Using chimeric mice she established the clonal origin of lineages for the pigment system, hematopoiesis, the somites, vertebrae, the skull, and muscles. She also was a pioneer in the development of mouse transgenic models, creating new mouse lines, initially by injection of DNA into blastocysts and later into the pronucleus. Her work was critical to our understanding of how relatively few embryonic stem cells generate the remarkable complexity of the fully developed animal.

Mintz’s work on cancer was crucial to our understanding of how the cell’s microenvironment contributes to the development of cancer. She placed tumorigenic teratoma cells into a normal mouse blastocyst and showed that the tumor cells became “normalized” by the embryonic environment and were able to generate tumor-free mice. This work clearly established that cancer is not only caused by genetic changes, but also by epigenetic alterations that can be reversed, a branch of cancer biology that is actively studied today. She also created a new model for melanoma research. Her transgenic mouse model showed that the melanoma tumor cells metastasized into skin and eye, and provide key insights into the complexities inherent to the development of melanoma.

Mintz won numerous awards during her career. She won a Fulbright Fellowship in 1951 to study at the Universities of Paris and Strasbourg. She was elected to the National Academies of Science in 1973, the President’s Biomedical Research Panel in 1975, the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1976, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982, and the American Association for Cancer Research in 2013. She was the first recipient of the Genetics Society of America Medal (1981), the Ernst Jung Gold Medal for Medicine (1990), and the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology (1996). She was also awarded the New York Academy of Sciences Award in Biological and Medical Sciences (1979), Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award in Basic Medical Research Brandeis University (1980), National Medal of Honor for Basic Research, American Cancer Society (1997), the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, Rockefeller University (2008), the Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research, National Foundation for Cancer Research (2011), and the Lifetime Achievement Award, American Association for Cancer Research (2012).

Beatrice Mintz was a force of nature and a pioneering scientist at a time when few women were recognized. Her innovative research had a major impact on our understanding of development and cancer. She will be greatly missed.