Researchers have grown part of the breast in the laboratory to provide a laboratory platform in which the growth of cancer can be monitored, and to help test cancer drugs.
Christina Scheel and colleagues from the Helmoltz Centre for Health and Environmental Research in Munich took donated human cells and grew them into mammary glands.
It’s the latest human body part to be ‘grown’ in the lab, following the development of penis tissue, the thymus and mini-livers by other research teams working in the field of regenerative medicine.
The mammary gland is the milk-producing part of the breast. The network of milk ducts repeatedly changes shape and regenerates throughout a woman’s life – but this process isn’t well understood.
Mammary gland cells are usually the ones that start to grow out of control to create tumours. Better understanding how they usually behave could help researchers develop better cancer drugs.
To create the mini mammary glands, Scheel and colleagues took donated cells and mixed them with collagen fibres (which form connective tissue) in a Petri dish.
By using gels of different rigidities, they’ve been able to study what kinds of mammary gland tissues are most welcoming for the spread of cancer.
While they’re not actually growing cancerous lesions, the researchers are looking at how normal stem cells are able to do their work in different gel environments. That is because cancer cells take on similar properties as healthy stem cells to proliferate, and the researchers have already identified some interesting facts.
“If you want to repair a broken car, you have to know how it works. Breast cancer is essentially out-of-control development,” said Scheel.
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