Before you’re tempted to fantasize about some Doctor Moreau experiment gone wrong in which deranged scientists revel at the wall of human breasts they’ve grown for their own amusement, realize that what these scientists have accomplished is for the greater good of learning more about how breast cancer develops and how it can be prevented and stopped. Sorry to burst your bubble.
Specifically, a German research group led by Dr. Christina Scheel took cultured human breast cells and placed them in a petri dish where the cells, inserted in a transparent gel, grew into a network of mammary glands. In the world of breast cancer research, this marks a scientific breakthrough in the tools this procedure provides in the study of how cancer develops and spreads inside mammary glands.
Breasts are beautiful on the inside too
Human breast cells consist of an intricate network of tiny, milk-producing pouches called mammary glands that follow tubes (encased in protective, fatty tissue) to the nipple.
Following pregnancy, mammary glands engage in a highly energy consuming process of producing milk. Given the wear and tear these mammary glands endure in the process of making milk, scientists suspect they contain specialized stem cells that help a woman’s mammary glands regenerate. The mammary glands these scientists cultured in a petri dish grow in a way that is similar to the growth of mammary glands during adolescents.
We were able to demonstrate that increasing rigidity of the gel led to increased spreading of the cells, or, said differently, invasive growth. Similar behavior was already observed in breast cancer cells. Our results suggest that invasive growth in response to physical rigidity represents a normal process during mammary gland development that is exploited during tumor progression.JELENA LINNEMANN, first author and phd student
The source of these breast cells is discarded tissue taken after a breast reduction surgery. “After the operation, this tissue is normally discarded. For us, it is an experimental treasure chest that enables us to tease out individual difference in the behavior of stem and other cells in the human mammary gland,” says co-author Lisa Meixner.