By Rabiya S. Tuma
Researcher Lisa Coussens helps to unravel cancer's story
By Rabiya S. Tuma
Standing in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain, this past March, Lisa Coussens realized a lifelong dream to see Picasso’s Guernica. She had first learned about the mural, which depicts the bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, as a high-school senior in Fairfield, Calif., while taking art classes at the local junior college.
After entering San Francisco State University on an art scholarship, her focus changed. Realizing that making a living in art might not be possible, Coussens turned to her other great love, biology. “When I was a little girl, I had an imaginary hospital, and that turned into having my own microscope by the time I was in about sixth grade,” says Coussens. Now, at 47, she has been studying cancer for more than 20 years and is an associate professor at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF).
Sitting in her office, however, it’s clear that Coussens hasn’t abandoned art. Reproductions of famous paintings dot her walls, including a postcard of Guernica itself. Then there is her computer screen: a large imposing flat-screen monitor—“the biggest one they make,” she says—which displays images from her research. The current photograph, in shades of purple and pink, shows a premalignant skin lesion with an immune cell sucking on a blood vessel like a leech.
It’s one of many images from Coussens’ research that tell the story of how cancer cells are influenced by their surroundings. In her early work, as a technician at the biotechnology company Genentech, and later in graduate school, Coussens studied the inner workings of cancer cells grown in laboratory dishes.
But then she joined cancer biologist Douglas Hanahan’s laboratory at UCSF and began to study cancer as it developed in an animal. It was a fortuitous move. Hanahan’s team had recently developed a mouse model of skin and cervical cancer by introducing genes into mice from the human papillomavirus (HPV). (Certain types of HPV can cause tumors in humans.) When Coussens examined the skin of these mice during the very earliest stages of cancer development, she observed abnormal changes in much more than the tumor cells.