Genetic approaches to characterize mammary stem and progenitor cells

A stem cell can both self-renew and divide to form differentiated daughter cells. In adult tissues, stem cells have the ability to generate mature cells of a particular tissue through differentiation, and to do so multiple times. Such cells were recently identified in a mammary gland, and demonstrated their capacity to regenerate their structures in other breast tissues. This was an important discovery, as it is speculated that these stem cells are central to the development of breast cancer. Because stem cells are relatively long-lived compared to other cells, they have a greater opportunity to accumulate mutations leading to cancer. Also, these cells have a pre-existing capacity for self-renewal and unlimited replication. The idea that stem cells are inherent to malignant transformation has wide-stretching implications for therapeutics, particularly with regards to drug resistance. Angela Beckett is studying the growth and differentiation of normal breast stem cells, which will provide knowledge about what drives malignant transformation and how to prevent cancer initiation. By obtaining basic information on stem cell regulation, this research is taking an important step in designing novel therapeutic approaches to their malignant counterparts, cancer stem cells.