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University of Ulster researchers are to develop a 3D model of breast tissue using human cells, to examine some of the potential causes of breast cancer.
The researchers at the Biomedical Sciences Research Institute received £360,000 funding from The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) to carry out the project, which will develop a model of human tissue to explore breast cancer,  rather than the current animal testing carried out. The 3D mammary gland model is based on pioneering work carried out by Professors Soto and Sonnenschein at Tufts University.
The award of this highly competitive grant was enhanced by the recent acquisition of a STED super-resolution microscope, one of the world’s most high powered optical microscopes which can look deep inside living tissues and help unlock some of the secrets of cell migration and tissue development.
The team, led by Professor of Bioimaging Vyvyan Howard in collaboration with Professor Ana Soto, Dr George McKerr and Dr Kurt Saetzler, has been investigating how endocrine disrupting substances (EDS), or environmental chemicals, can interfere with hormonal function.
Professor Soto’s and Sonnenschein’s previous research at Tufts University in Boston on rodents has shown how exposure of the foetus to EDS has the possibility of increasing the risk of developing mammary cancer.
“Being able to now develop a three-dimensional model of breast tissue using human cells to test EDS will replace the use of animals in this process , and build on prior research models and improve testing – because the new model will exhibit the same complex cellular branching structure found in the breast,” Professor Howard said.
At present, the most reliable way to test for the developmental effects of EDS is to use rodents, with each experiment typically using 80 pregnant female mice or rats, producing 800 pups. The three-dimensional model will potentially replace the use of rodents altogether and becomes particularly exciting, as time-course studies will generate site specific four dimensional data, Professor Howard said.
“The use of the breast issue model that we will develop could also start producing more accurate results in our research and give us a better sense of how EDS impact on health and the possibilities of the development of mammary cancer.”
Professors Soto and Sonneschein’s research has already shown that foetal exposure to environmentally relevant doses of the EDS bisphenol-A (BPA) induces pre-neoplastic and neoplastic lesions in the mammary glands of rodents.  This research suggests a possible link between BPA exposure, a chemical used in the manufacturing of hard plastics including some baby bottles, and breast cancer .
“Hopefully the production of the 3D model of human breast tissue can allow us to carry out further investigation to support prior research” Professor Howard said.