On the Brink of Finding a Cure: Young Biologist Banks Her Career on Cancer Research

Article excerpt

Professor Jill Bargonetti is the youngest biologist on the faculty of Hunter College in New York, but age isn't the only thing that sets the 33-year-old scientist apart from her peers. She has also been described as on the brink of a medical science breakthrough.

In 1990, while a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University, Bargonetti discovered a correlation between a specific gene's ability to bind to DNA and its ability to suppress tumors. When healthy, the p53 gene's protein puts the brakes on cell growth. But when the gene is not healthy, or mutated, its protein does the exact opposite, encouraging tumor cells to multiply out of control.

The biologist's cutting-edge research has garnered her a three-year grant of $300,000 from the American Cancer Society, and a four-year career development award of $200,000 from the Department of Defense to focus her research on breast cancer. These grants will help further her research of the DNA-binding properties of p53 on human chromosomes. Working with grad students, Bargonetti will observe how normal p53 and mutant p53 bind to a variety of DNA sites at different times in the cell's life cycle.

"By learning how normal and mutant p53 interact with DNA," Bargonetti says, "we may be able to target cancer drugs to the precise locations needed to prevent or reverse tumor cell growth."

Bargonetti's interest in science was piqued in high school, and she earned an M.S. in molecular biology in 1987 and a Ph.D. in 1990, both from New York University. Out of 3,288 scientists who received Ph.D.s in biology that year, she was one of 41 blacks. But it was her four-year postdoctoral work at Columbia that was a rich experience for the scientist. "You learn how to set up a lab, how to ask the right questions, and you bring your own ideas to the research."

What may have been most important, though, was developing her ability to devise "beautiful" questions. "A lot of science is creative thought. You must keep that creative mind-set so you don't get stuck in rutted thinking." It was Bargonetti's ability to ask an original question about p53 that led to her discovery. …