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J Mammary Gland Biol Neoplasia. 2013 Jun;18(2):209-19. doi: 10.1007/s10911-013-9284-6. Epub 2013 Apr 27.

Stem cells and the developing mammary gland.

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Terry Fox Laboratory, British Columbia Cancer Agency, 675 West 10th Avenue, Vancouver, BC V5Z 1L3, Canada.


The mammary gland undergoes dynamic changes throughout life. In the mouse, these begin with initial morphogenesis of the gland in the mid-gestation embryo followed by hormonally regulated changes during puberty and later in adulthood. The adult mammary gland contains a hierarchy of cell types with varying potentials for self-maintenance and differentiation. These include cells able to produce complete, functional mammary glands in vivo and that contain daughter cells with the same remarkable regenerative potential, as well as cells with more limited clonogenic activity in vitro. Here we review how applying in vitro and in vivo methods for quantifying these cells in adult mammary tissue to fetal mammary cells has enabled the first cells fulfilling the functional criteria of transplantable, isolated mammary stem cells to be identified a few days before birth. Thereafter, the number of these cells increases rapidly. Populations containing these fetal stem cells display growth and gene expression programs that differ from their adult counterparts but share signatures characteristic of certain types of breast cancer. Such observations reinforce growing evidence of important differences between tissue-specific fetal and adult cells with stem cell properties and emphasize the merits of investigating their molecular basis.

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