New breast immune cells discovered

New breast immune cells discovered

Illuminate newsletter index page, June 2020
June 2020

Dr Caleb Dawson
Dr Caleb Dawson and his colleagues hope
their discovery will enhance the understanding of how
breast cancer grows and spreads.

A new type of immune cell that helps to keep breast tissue healthy has been discovered by Institute researchers.

The specialised population of cells, called ductal macrophages, were found in mammary ducts. These are sites where milk is produced and transported, but also where most breast cancers arise.

Using advanced three-dimensional (3D) imaging techniques, the team observed how the cells monitor for threats and help to maintain tissue health by ‘eating’ up dying milk-producing cells needing to be cleared away once lactation stops.

Published in Nature Cell Biology, the study was led by Institute breast cancer researchers Dr Caleb Dawson, Professor Geoff Lindeman and Professor Jane Visvader.

Maintaining breast tissue health

The mammary gland is a dynamic organ that undergoes dramatic remodelling throughout life.

The branching ducts bloom to form milk-producing ‘factories’ in lactation, which must be eliminated once lactation stops.

Dr Caleb Dawson said the clearing action performed by ductal macrophages helped redundant milk-producing structures to collapse, allowing them to successfully return to a resting state.

“When we removed ductal macrophages from the mammary ducts we found that no other immune cells were able to swiftly carry out this essential process.”

Exploring a cancer connection

The team is now exploring the function of ductal macrophages in relation to cancer.

Dr Dawson said it was possible that ductal macrophages could inadvertently dampen the body’s immune response.

“We want to investigate this further as it could have dangerous implications for the growth and spread of cancer in these already prone sites.”

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