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Methods Mol Biol. 2013;945:221-50. doi: 10.1007/978-1-62703-125-7_14.

Three-dimensional cultures of mouse mammary epithelial cells.

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA.


The mammary gland is an ideal "model organism" for studying tissue specificity and gene expression in mammals: it is one of the few organs that develop after birth and it undergoes multiple cycles of growth, differentiation and regression during the animal's lifetime in preparation for the important function of lactation. The basic "functional differentiation" unit in the gland is the mammary acinus made up of a layer of polarized epithelial cells specialized for milk production surrounded by myoepithelial contractile cells, and the two-layered structure is surrounded by basement membrane. Much knowledge about the regulation of mammary gland development has been acquired from studying the physiology of the gland and of lactation in rodents. Culture studies, however, were hampered by the inability to maintain functional differentiation on conventional tissue culture plastic. We now know that the microenvironment, including the extracellular matrix and tissue architecture, plays a crucial role in directing functional differentiation of organs. Thus, in order for culture systems to be effective experimental models, they need to recapitulate the basic unit of differentiated function in the tissue or organ and to maintain its three-dimensional (3D) structure. Mouse mammary culture models evolved from basic monolayers of cells to an array of complex 3D systems that observe the importance of the microenvironment in dictating proper tissue function and structure. In this chapter, we focus on how 3D mouse mammary epithelial cultures have enabled investigators to gain a better understanding of the organization, development and function of the acinus, and to identify key molecular, structural, and mechanical cues important for maintaining mammary function and architecture. The accompanying chapter of Vidi et al. describes 3D models developed for human cells. Here, we describe how mouse primary epithelial cells and cell lines--essentially those we use in our laboratory--are cultured in relevant 3D microenvironments. We focus on the design of functional assays that enable us to understand the intricate signaling events underlying mammary gland biology, and address the advantages and limitations of the different culture settings. Finally we also discuss how advances in bioengineering tools may help towards the ultimate goal of building tissues and organs in culture for basic research and clinical studies.

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