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The 9th International Symposium on the Breast

It is hard for me to believe that it has been almost two weeks since our 9th International Symposium! We first hosted this conference in 1999 and, while each year has been special, I think this year’s meeting, “Exploring the Human Breast: Employing New Technology,” was one of the best yet!

Over two days, we heard presentations from 28 researchers—and my head is still spinning with new ideas that need to be pursued. One of the unique aspects of the Symposium is the effort we put in to bringing together creative, innovative thinkers from a variety of specialties. By doing so, participants engage in conversations that might not otherwise occur. Listening to these exchanges reinforces my belief that it is only by looking beyond our individual specialties and disciplines that we will better understand the human breast, why cancer develops, and how we can prevent it.

Here are a few of the many highlights:

A More Biologically Correct Breast Pump for Lactating Moms     

Fatemah Hassanipour, PhD, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas, gave a presentation that wowed the audience. Because of her own experience breastfeeding, Dr. Hassanipour began to study the biomechanics of human lactation—which had never previously been done! It turns out, as with so many things with the breast, it is complicated . Dr. Hassanipour discovered that vacuum pressure alone is not the only reason the baby gets milk from the breast. The baby has a suck cycle that involves movement of the tongue and jaw, suckling, swallowing, and breathing, and the pace varies over time. She also discovered the majority of milk intake by the baby occurs early on, with almost 50% occurring during the first 2 minutes of breastfeeding and around 80-90% occurring during the first four minutes. The amazing result of her work is a series of mathematical equations that characterize the breastfeeding process. This work not only helps us understand more about the breast itself but could also lead to the development of a more biologically correct breast pump for lactating moms.

Our Bodies Are Not Exactly Symmetrical

Another amazing presentation was by Ann Ramsdell, PhD, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. As you know, our bodies are not exactly symmetrical. For example, the heart is on one side of the body and the liver is on the other. Dr. Ramsdell’s research  shows us that when you approach the breast from an embryological point of view, it becomes apparent the breast differs from side to side, too!

Studies have shown that breast cancer more commonly develops in the left breast than in the right one. And in women with bilateral breast cancer (cancers in both breasts) the one on the left is typically larger. But that’s not the only difference. Tumors that occur on the right side behave differently than those on the left, with right-sided tumors potentially having a worse prognosis and a greater tendency to metastasize to bone. The ductal systems are even in different patterns right to left.

Genetic analyses of the right and left breasts Dr. Ramsdell and her colleagues conducted identified 160 genes that are expressed differently in the right and left breasts. Most of these are in the stroma or connective tissue that the ducts are suspended in, which means the neighborhood differs between the right and left breasts. This could be one reason why the cancers that develop in the right and left breast behave differently.

Indeed, when Dr. Ramsdell, using animal models, injected tumor cells into ducts on the right and left side, she found the ones on the right were more likely to become metastatic more quickly. The left side ultimately caught up, however. The difference is intriguing, especially since some research done on women has found a slight difference in survival based on whether the tumor developed in the right or left breast. Amazing!

The Breast is a Complicated Organ

And just to keep you on your toes, here’s what we learned from Piyush Gupta, PhD, assistant professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the Whitehead Institute. He and his colleagues are growing human breast cells  in 3D hydrogels in such a way that they self-organize into ducts and lobules. As you may recall, last month’s Research Worth Watching pointed out that the surrounding tissue or neighborhood is equally if not more important than the ductal cells. Remember the testicular stem cells that became milk-producing ducts when inserted into normal breast tissue (stroma)? This was the reverse. The primary human epithelial cells organized into ducts and lobules and, when treated with the appropriate hormones, made liquid droplets. Obviously, this is one complicated organ and worthy of our study!

These are just three of the remarkable presentations we heard at the Symposium. We will be releasing a full report from the 9th International Symposium on the Breast soon. You can read reports from past Symposia on our website .