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Open Access Research article

Association of cellular and molecular responses in the rat mammary gland to 17β-estradiol with susceptibility to mammary cancer

Lina Ding13, Yang Zhao3, Christopher L Warren1, Ruth Sullivan245, Kevin W Eliceiri25 and James D Shull123*

Author Affiliations

1 McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, Department of Oncology, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin Madison, 1400 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706, USA

2 UW Carbone Cancer Center, University of Wisconsin Madison, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin Madison, 600 Highland Avenue, Madison, WI 53792, USA

3 Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin Madison, 1300 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706, USA

4 Research Animal Resources Center, Graduate School, University of Wisconsin Madison, 1710 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53726, USA

5 Laboratory for Optical and Computational Instrumentation, Graduate School, University of Wisconsin Madison, 1675 Observatory Dr, Madison, WI 53706, USA

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BMC Cancer 2013, 13:573  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-13-573

Published: 5 December 2013



We are using ACI and BN rats, which differ markedly in their susceptibility to 17β-estradiol (E2)-induced mammary cancer, to identify genetic variants and environmental factors that determine mammary cancer susceptibility. The objective of this study was to characterize the cellular and molecular responses to E2 in the mammary glands of ACI and BN rats to identify qualitative and quantitative phenotypes that associate with and/or may confer differences in susceptibility to mammary cancer.


Female ACI and BN rats were treated with E2 for 1, 3 or 12 weeks. Mammary gland morphology and histology were examined by whole mount and hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) staining. Cell proliferation and epithelial density were evaluated by quantitative immunohistochemistry. Apoptosis was evaluated by quantitative western blotting and flow cytometry. Mammary gland differentiation was examined by immunohistochemistry. Gene expression was evaluated by microarray, qRT-PCR and quantitative western blotting assays. Extracellular matrix (ECM) associated collagen was evaluated by Picrosirius Red staining and Second Harmonic Generation (SHG) microscopy.


The luminal epithelium of ACI rats exhibited a rapid and sustained proliferative response to E2. By contrast, the proliferative response exhibited by the mammary epithelium of BN rats was restrained and transitory. Moreover, the epithelium of BN rats appeared to undergo differentiation in response to E2, as evidenced by production of milk proteins as well as luminal ectasia and associated changes in the ECM. Marked differences in expression of genes that encode proteins with well-defined roles in mammary gland development (Pgr, Wnt4, Tnfsf11, Prlr, Stat5a, Areg, Gata3), differentiation and milk production (Lcn2, Spp1), regulation of extracellular environment (Mmp7, Mmp9), and cell-cell or cell-ECM interactions (Cd44, Cd24, Cd52) were observed.


We propose that these cellular and molecular phenotypes are heritable and may underlie, at least in part, the differences in mammary cancer susceptibility exhibited by ACI and BN rats.

ACI rat; BN rat; Breast cancer susceptibility; Cell proliferation; Gene expression; Epithelial density