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Mol Biol Cell. 1997 Dec;8(12):2391-405.

Gradual phenotypic conversion associated with immortalization of cultured human mammary epithelial cells.

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California 94720, USA.


Examination of the process of immortal transformation in early passages of two human mammary epithelial cell (HMEC) lines suggests the involvement of an epigenetic step. These lines, 184A1 and 184B5, arose after in vitro exposure of finite lifespan 184 HMEC to a chemical carcinogen, and both are clonally derived. Although early-passage mass cultures of 184A1 and 184B5 maintained continuous slow growth, most individual cells lost proliferative ability. Uniform good growth did not occur until 20-30 passages after the lines first appeared. Early-passage cultures expressed little or no telomerase activity and telomeres continued to shorten with increasing passage. Telomerase activity was first detected when the telomeres became critically short, and activity levels gradually increased thereafter. Early-passage cultures had little or no ability to maintain growth in transforming growth factor-beta (TGFbeta); however, both mass cultures and clonal isolates showed a very gradual increase in the number of cells displaying progressively increased ability to maintain growth in TGFbeta. A strong correlation between capacity to maintain growth in the presence of TGFbeta and expression of telomerase activity was observed. We have used the term "conversion" to describe this process of gradual acquisition of increased growth capacity in the absence or presence of TGFbeta and reactivation of telomerase. We speculate that the development of extremely short telomeres may result in gradual, epigenetic-based changes in gene expression. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of HMEC conversion in vitro may provide new insight into the process of carcinogenic progression in vivo and offer novel modes for therapeutic intervention.

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