Written by Katharine Q. Seelye
Dr. Beatrice Mintz, a cancer researcher whose many groundbreaking discoveries included the crucial finding that certain cancerous cells could be tamed by contact with normal neighboring cells, without the use of harsh treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, died January 3 at her home in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. She was 100.
The cause was heart failure after a long battle with dementia, said Bob Spallone, her executor and a 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 a number of disciplines, and her pioneering contributions have proved essential in helping researchers unravel some of the complexities of how cancer operates.
“She made foundational discoveries and revolutionized many tools and techniques of molecular biology that paved the way for tremendous progress in our understanding of cancer,” Margaret Foti, chief executive of the American Association for Cancer Research, said in a statement.
Mintz’s experiments drew attention as early as 1964, shortly after she joined the Institute for Cancer Research, now part of Fox Chase.
Among her early notable achievements 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 dark mice and implanted them in a surrogate mother mouse. The offspring came out striped — a clear expression of genetic characteristics that would enable 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 enabled scientists to create genetically tailored mice, an invaluable tool that helped transform biomedical research.
“That simple experiment was the granddaddy of every mouse cancer model that we have,” Dr. Jonathan Chernoff, director of the Fox Chase Cancer Center, said in an interview.
Perhaps her most far-reaching finding was her demonstration in 1968 that certain deadly cancer cells could be inserted into mouse embryos and, to everyone’s astonishment, a normal mouse would develop. It was not that the neighboring cells killed the cancer cells; rather, they somehow instructed the cancer cells to revert to a benign state and then contributed to making a normal mouse.
“This was revolutionary,” Chernoff said. “The implications were that tumors were not always autonomous, that they were in constant dialogue with the cells around them, and they responded to their environment,” which could either make the cancer worse or keep it in check.
This suggested that the neighboring tissue could help tame tumor cells more gently than radiation or chemotherapy. Drugs designed to mimic these normalizing effects are now part of many cancer therapy regimens.
An elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, Mintz won numerous prestigious prizes and awards. They included the National Medal of Honor for Basic Research by the American Cancer Society, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for Cancer Research and the first March of Dimes Prize in developmental biology, which she shared with Ralph L. Brinster, in 1996.
Many of her colleagues thought that her work deserved a Nobel Prize, and she was twice nominated. John R. Durant, the former president of Fox Chase, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986 that she probably would have won “if she had been a better politician.”
Mintz was notorious for having a demanding personality and for setting exacting standards that few others could meet.
At one point she was thinking about 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 she personally looked after all her mice, which was probably for the better because she would notice key details that might otherwise have escaped detection.”
On the rare occasion when she would take on assistants or postdoctoral fellows, she would show them a map of the neighborhood, draw a one-mile-wide circle with her lab in the center and instruct them to live within the circle; they had to be readily available.
Despite a reputation for prickliness, she could also be generous. When a colleague brought his 7-year-old daughter to work one day, Mintz took the girl aside and talked to her for two hours about how she became a scientist, which was almost by accident.
Beatrice Mintz was born on Jan. 24, 1921, in the Bronx, the youngest of four children. Her parents, Samuel and Janie (Stein) Mintz, had migrated first to London and then to New York from the small town of Mikulintsy, which was 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 some grades in school and went to Hunter College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. She was planning to study art history but then took a biology course, liked her teacher and became so intrigued with 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 earned 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 that time, she studied in France on a Fulbright fellowship. But she preferred doing basic research to teaching and in 1960 transferred to Fox Chase, where she remained on the faculty until her death. She also served as 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 research organizations.
Mintz remained an art enthusiast. While in France, she bought several signed Picasso prints and hung them in her homes (she had two apartments, one close to her lab). She also wrote poetry, mostly about mice, but felt the poems were not 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 kind of trophy. But the taxidermist had put it in a stalking pose that she felt was unnatural. It also went into a desk drawer.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.