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Mice Grow Human Breast Tissue

By Nancy Touchette

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Breast Cancer

Blood vessels in breast tissue from “humanized” mice.
Scientists have developed a new technique for growing human breast tissues in living mice. The restructured mice may serve as the best experimental model yet for studying human breast cancer.

Scientists studying breast cancer often use laboratory animals to induce disease in an effort to identify cancer-causing genes and environmental agents. They also test possible treatments in animals to avoid exposing humans to potentially hazardous drugs. But those methods have fallen short because disease in mouse cells and tissues only approximate disease in human beings.

“Many existing models for studying breast cancer are biologically unrealistic,” says Robert Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the recent study. “They don’t echo what is really happening in the human breast.”

Attempts to study human breast cancer cells in laboratory culture are also less than ideal, because the interactions between different types of cells that are present in the breast, do not take place in cell cultures.

In the new study, Weinberg and his colleagues transplanted two types of human breast cells into nude mice, which lack an immune system.

The new research mice developed human tissue that contained most of the functional elements of human breasts. For instance, the breasts contained milk ducts that produced milk when the mice became pregnant.

Weinberg and his colleagues hope to use the animals to study how genetic mutations lead to breast cancer. Although several heritable breast cancer genes have been identified, researchers still don’t understand how specific mutations lead to cancer.

“The idea is to connect specific genetic alterations with specific abnormalities that we see early in the early stages of breast cancer,” says Weinberg. “We still don’t understand what causes many of the changes we see in cells as breast cancer develops.”

Kuperwasser, C. et al. Reconstruction of functionally normal and malignant human breast tissues in mice. Published online in Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA March 29, 2004.

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