The PJ Tatler

Boob in a Tube: Researchers Grow a Breast in the Lab

Yeah, one reason I’m writing about this is that it’s interesting clickbait.

But this is a kewl story also, revealing just one of the innovative ways we are looking to understand and eventually defeat cancer.

Scientists are trying to understand why tumors grow in the human breast. This experiment — taking healthy adult stem cells, putting them in a petri dish, and feeding them super-nutrients to make them grow — could answer that question, which would lead to the development of new ways to treat breast cancer.

Time magazine:

For the first time, scientists have taken healthy breast cells from women and isolated the stem cells that can recreate major breast structures—including the milk-feeding ducts and structures that actually produce breast milk. In a new paper in the journal Development, they report that they’ve set up a model for studying how normal breast tissue develops during puberty, and, in coming months, expect to introduce mutations in these cells to study how they might develop cancer.

Starting with breast tissue from women who have had breast reduction surgery, Dr. Christina Scheel, from the Helmholtz Center for Health and Environmental Research, and her colleagues managed to isolate the few stem cells within them that are responsible for generating the new breast tissue that results in the breast’s constant remodeling during puberty, at each menstrual cycle and with each pregnancy.

Only one in about 2,000 of these cells are stem cells, but by mixing up a more nurturing culture solution, they were able to increase the growth of these cells by five-fold, and before their eyes the cells began to form the branchlike structures that serve as the duct network of the breast. With other adjustments, Scheel was also able to promote the growth of the cluster-like cells that produce milk. By labeling the initial stem cell, they saw that all of the complex structures in the breast remarkably arose from a single cell, guided by the right developmental instructions.

[…]

She and her team also found that when they grew the breast stem cells on a more rigid platform, the cells grew more aggressively and acted more tumor-like compared to when they were grown on a more flexible, softer framework. That may explain why women with dense breasts, which contain more connective tissue, tend to have higher rates of breast cancer. “This model will allow us to better study normal breast development, and then to understand the first steps that predispose women to developing tumors,” she says.


This cancer fact sheet shows why innovative research like this is going to save a lot of lives.

  • In 2015, an estimated 1,658,370 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 589,430 people will die from the disease.
  • The most common cancers in 2015 are projected to be breast cancer, lung and bronchus cancer, prostate cancer, colon and rectum cancer, bladder cancer, melanoma of the skin, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, thyroid cancer, kidney and renal pelvis cancer, endometrial cancer, leukemia, and pancreatic cancer.
  • The number of new cases of cancer (cancer incidence) is 454.8 per 100,000 men and women per year (based on 2008-2012 cases).
  • The number of cancer deaths (cancer mortality) is 171.2 per 100,000 men and women per year (based on 2008-2012 deaths).
  • Cancer mortality is higher among men than women (207.9 per 100,000 men and 145.4 per 100,000 women). It is highest in African American men (261.5 per 100,000) and lowest in Asian/Pacific Islander women (91.2 per 100,000). (Based on 2008-2012 deaths.)
  • The number of people living beyond a cancer diagnosis reached nearly 14.5 million in 2014 and is expected to rise to almost 19 million by 2024.

Nearly 40% of those alive in the U.S. today will receive a diagnosis of cancer at some time in their lives.  The significance of this study becomes clear when you consider that more than 40,000 women will die of breast cancer this year alone and that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes.