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Researchers Grow A Breast In A Petri Dish

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Caroline Reid

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512 Researchers Grow A Breast In A Petri Dish
Haruko Miura via HelmholtzZentrum münchen

Forget cock in a box, what's hot now is a boob in a petri dish.

A research group has found a way of taking cultured human breast cells and using these to grow their own network of mammary glands, the same as those found inside the breast. The mammary glands are grown in a transparent gel in a petri dish from only a few cells, which makes this a resourceful way of creating tissue that can be used for tests in the laboratory. Scientists are hopeful that this will be a powerful experimental tool for breast cancer research.


So let's talk about breasts. And no, not in a sexy way. The breast contains mammary glands: an impressive network of tiny, milk-producing pouches that all follow tubes to the nipple. These ducts are encased in protective, fatty tissue. And somehow, using a marketing miracle, nature managed to package this into a form that plenty of people find pleasing (and occasionally distracting).

After pregnancy, the mammary glands have a lot of work to do. Making milk for babies is an intensive, high-energy process; for this reason, it is speculated that there are stem cells in the mammary glands to help regenerate the glands after each successive pregnancy. It is not known how these stem cells contribute to mammary gland growth during puberty though. 

The cultured mammary glands in the petri dish grow in a similar way to mammary glands developed during adolescence; understanding this process may help scientists uncover how and why breast cancer develops later in life. 

Jelena Linnemann, first author of the study, said: "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." 


Co-author Lisa Meixner adds that "with our assay, we can elucidate how such processes are controlled at the molecular level, which provides the basis for developing therapeutic strategies to inhibit them in breast cancer."

The mini-mammaries are especially useful since they are grown using 'waste' breast tissue. Women undergoing breast reductions have tissue removed that is basically just thrown away. It is this tissue that can be 'recycled' to grow the mammary glands in petri dishes.

Co-author Haruko Miura explains: "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."

This progressive technique might just be our breast bet at figuring out how to cure breast cancer.


[Via Development, HelmholtzZentrum münchen]


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