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Sister's illness led her into biology

When Joan Brugge was in college, her older sister was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor.

"I wanted to understand how someone so young could develop cancer," says Brugge, now chairwoman of the department of cell biology at Harvard Medical School. "So I started reading."

Poring over biology texts exposed her for the first time to the scientific process. To the young mathematics student, the books were a revelation, and she immediately switched her major to biology.

Now, Brugge, 57, is the head of a Harvard lab that's making major inroads into the study of breast cancer, and into the hard science of how cells function.

Today she will testify about cancer research funding before a Senate appropriations subcommittee. She'll be arguing that federal funding needs to expand if we're to take advantage of the most recent breakthroughs. "Now's the time to do more, not less," she says. "But right now everyone's starving."

Brugge's lab has so far examined 300 genes that are implicated in breast cancer. "We're looking for drivers, genes that are changing the behavior of cells. We want to understand the mechanism by which they do this."

"We used to culture cells in a Petri dish," she says. This gave scientists a two-dimensional surface on which to grow the cells, but most of the cells that make up the body's organs are grouped in three-dimensional, spherical shapes. So the model didn't work well. Recent developments have allowed scientists to cultivate cells in shapes that are more natural -- ones that look like golf balls.

Such seemingly pure academic issues haven't always been Brugge's focus. After spending much of the 1980s in professorial jobs, Brugge dipped into the private sector as the scientific director of ARIAD, a Cambridge biotech start-up. She spent five years in exile from the ivory tower.

"The first three years were fantastic," she says. "But then we were close to depleting the money from the initial private offering. I spent a year and a half giving presentations to pharmaceutical companies. I lost my connection to the science."

Brugge returned to academia, joining Harvard Medical School in 1997. She missed teaching, in particular in helping set young feet on the first rung of the science ladder. "She's been an incredible mentor to the people who have gone through her lab," says professor Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas, one of Brugge's colleagues. "In our business," it's important to be "successful with other people, and she's universally liked."

And, of course, Brugge felt drawn by the prospect of getting back to lab work. With increased funding and plans to expand in Allston/Brighton, Harvard is investing heavily in cancer research -- but the ballooning complexities of the field pose challenges.

"Technology is so sophisticated that individual labs can't be self-sufficient," says Brugge. "We need biophysicists, mathematicians, and engineers who can collaborate with biologists. We need to reconfigure the organization of the sciences." Her own lab, which includes fellows in pathology and clinical cancer treatment, draws on the cross-disciplinary methods that are increasingly common in top academic research facilities.

But Brugge's foray into the private sector taught her an important lesson about herself. She's still "addicted" to designing and interpreting scientific experiments -- the process that first drew her to biology. "Without the thrill of discovery, there's something missing from my life."

Hometown: Born in Cincinnati, she now lives in the South End.

Education: After graduating from Northwestern University in Chicago, she attended Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, receiving a PhD in virology. While she was a post-doctorate researcher at the University of Colorado, she, along with an adviser, identified the SRC gene, a tumor-inducing protein that's been useful as a model for scientists to study cellular processes.

Family: Husband, Bill Brugge, is a gastroenterologist at MGH. Son Shawn, 29, is a geographer in Colorado.

Hobbies: SCUBA diving. Tennis. "There's a group from the cellular biology department that plays mixed doubles."

Ambition: To lay the groundwork for other people to develop cancer drugs and say that her research has had an impact on the disease. Also, to help nurture young scientists.