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Viral DNA creates immortal breast cells.

Viral DNA creates immortal breast cells

Researchers have discovered that genetic material taken from the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes healthy human breast cells to proliferate indefinitely in culture, providing an "immortal" cell line for studying the first stages of abnormal cell growth, which can lead to cancer. The researchers say their finding also raises the intriguing possibility that HPV plays a role in the development of at least some breast cancers -- a notion some scientists discount as unlikely.

In the past, researchers have detected HPV -- a DNA-containing virus that commonly causes a type of skin wart -- in cervical cancer tissue (SN: 11/11/89, p.310). Others have used HPV in vitro to provoke unrestrained growth of healthy skin cells.

But the search for a similar method to transform healthy breast cells in the laboratory proved fruitless until researchers at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute injected healthy breast epithelial cells with DNA extracted from HPV types 16 and 18, both linked with cervical cancer. At that point, no one had suggested a possible link between HPV and breast cancer.

To the scientists' surprise, the treated cells continued to grow for the two years they were studied. Normal breast epithelial cells grow for much shorter periods in culture and then stop. Vimla Band, Ruth Sager and their colleagues report the finding in the January PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES (Vol.87, No.1).

Although not malignant, the cells proliferated in the same manner as benign tumors, Sager says. Scientists believe such abnormal cells are at risk of becoming cancerous when genetic mutations in the cell trigger uncontrolled growth and the ability to spread to other body parts. In the future, the researchers intend to induce genetic changes in HPV-treated cells to study very early cell abnormalities that may lead to cancer.

Their observations have led them to wonder whether HPV exposure might somehow make breast cells prone to developing cancer, though Sager says that's pure conjecture at this point. Her team used DNA extracted from HPV, and not the whole virus. There is no evidence that the whole virus can infect breast cells in the body, says HPV researcher Peter M. Howley of the National Cancer Institute. Nonetheless, the Boston researchers believe the potential link between HPV and breast cancer should be explored. They are now searching for evidence of HPV DNA in cancerous human breast tissue.
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Author:Fackelmann, K.A.
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 27, 1990
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