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Cancer Cell. 2004 Mar;5(3):263-73.

Histologically normal human mammary epithelia with silenced p16(INK4a) overexpress COX-2, promoting a premalignant program.

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Department of Pathology and Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of California at San Francisco, San Francisco, CA 94143, USA.


Breast tissue from healthy women contains variant mammary epithelial cells (vHMEC) exhibiting p16INK4a promoter hypermethylation both in vivo and in vitro. When continuously cultured, vHMEC acquire telomeric dysfunction and produce the types of chromosomal abnormalities seen in premalignant lesions of cancer. We find that late passage vHMEC express elevated prostaglandin cyclo-oxygenase 2 (COX-2), which contributes to increased prostaglandin synthesis, angiogenic activity, and invasive ability. These data demonstrate the existence of human mammary epithelial cells with the potential to acquire multiple genomic alterations and phenotypes associated with malignant cells. Moreover, COX-2 overexpression coincides with focal areas of p16INK4a hypermethylation in vivo, creating ideal candidates as precursors to breast cancer. These putative precursors can be selectively eliminated upon exposure to COX-2 inhibitors in vitro.

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