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Mini breasts grown in petri dishes for cancer research

The aggressive growth of healthy stem cells will help teach how cancer cells acquire their aggressive traits, researchers said.

By Stephen Feller
Mini breasts grown in petri dishes for cancer research
Detail of breast epithelial cells in culture undergoing ductal elongation and side-branching. Image by Haruko Miura courtesy Helmholtz Zentrum München, German Research Center for Environmental Health

NEUHERBERG, Germany, June 12 (UPI) -- Researchers successfully grew miniature mammary glands from cultured breast epithelial cells, allowing them an opportunity to discover how cells generate the hollow ducts that form a network of branches and terminate in grape-like structures to form the breast.

Stem cells in the breast continuously remodel and renew the breast throughout the reproductive lifespan of women to guarantee milk production for offspring. It is thought that learning how this constant process works will help researchers understand how breast cancer starts and grows.

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"This technological break-through provides the basis for many research projects, both those aimed to understand how breast cancer cells acquire aggressive traits, as well as to elucidate how adult stem cells function in normal regeneration," said Dr. Christina Scheel, of the Helmholtz Center in Munich, in a press release.

Researchers used healthy breast tissue from women undergoing aesthetic breast reduction, and developed a gel that allows cells to divide and spread in a way similar to the development of mammary glands during puberty.

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Researchers reported that the rigidity of the gel increased the spreading of the cells, an invasive form of growth they said is a normal response during breast development. This normal process is exploited during tumor progression and is what the researchers hope to better understand by growing healthy breast tissue.

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By discovering how the process works, they hope to "elucidate how such processes are controlled at the molecular level, which provides the basis for developing therapeutic strategies to inhibit them in breast cancer," said Dr. Lisa Meixner.

The study is published in Development.

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