Oncological Sciences Center

Understanding the Basis for Breast Cancer by Studying the Normal Mammary Gland

February 8, 2009

Research into the normal development of the human breast, as well as the initiation and progression of breast cancer, would greatly benefit from better animal models that are more closely related to human physiology. Mice are, currently, the most widely used model for studying the development of human breast cancer and, despite the advances made in mouse models of breast cancer, many discoveries are not translatable to humans as effective treatments and interventions. Recognizing this problem, Dr. Russ Hovey, of the University of California, Davis, has been working to develop the pig as a more relevant model for studying normal human breast development and breast tumorigenesis.

Recipient of two Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP) awards, Dr. Hovey was granted a fiscal year 1998 BCRP Postdoctoral Traineeship Award, under the mentorship of Dr. Barbara Vonderhaar of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). During the course of this award, Dr. Hovey studied the hormonal regulation of mammary cell proliferation and its mediation by mammary gland stromal cells; he found that prolactin and progesterone interact to stimulate both epithelial and stromal proliferation in vivo and that prolactin and progesterone receptors are regulated in a coordinated fashion during mammary development. He also found that prolactin regulates insulin-like growth factor-II (IGF-II) and vascular endothelial (VEGF) expression in the mammary gland.

In 2002, Dr. Hovey accepted a tenure-track faculty position in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Vermont, where he held a joint appointment in the Department of Pathology. In 2003, he received a BCRP Idea Award to study how the pig could be used as an authentic model to explore human breast development and breast cancer initiation and progression. Dr. Hovey has been developing such a model by attempting to induce mammary tumors in pigs through the use of chemical carcinogens and tissue transplantation. As part of this award, Dr. Hovey also conducted experiments using the pig model to better define the hormonal regulation that occurs during normal breast development. Recently, Dr. Hovey became a tenured Assistant Professor at the University of California, Davis. Access to the University-maintained swine facilities and increased availability of technologies will allow him to analyze hormone-induced genetic changes in primary cells (including stem cells) cultured and purified from the pig mammary gland.

Dr. Hovey, a passionate and dedicated breast cancer researcher, remarks that his BCRP Postdoctoral Traineeship Award not only allowed him to finish his training at the NIH, but also gave him the opportunity to write his own grant, which received funding. This accomplishment enabled him to obtain a tenure-track Assistant Professorship at the University of Vermont. Dr. Hovey also notes that one of the high points of his BCRP awards has been the opportunity to interact with breast cancer survivors. "This," he affirms, "is why we do the work."

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