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Scientists have created a hydrogel scaffold that mimics the environment of human breast tissue. By seeding it with patient-derived cells they can create models of individual tumors to study in the lab. Here’s what researcher Piyush Gupta of MIT’s Whitehead Institute had to say about the research, published in the journal Breast Cancer Research.

What did you do to get started on the scaffolds?

We wanted to mimic what occurs in women in the lab, but we noticed that many of the scaffolds used to culture mammary cells were missing some of the major components in human breast tissue. So we addressed those, put the cells in with growth factors they like to respond to, and let them do their thing.

What surprised you about the research?

What we saw over the two- to three-week period [during which] these tissues grow was that they actually remodel this hydrogel. The cells, as they’re growing, are tugging and pulling these hydrogels. That’s an important part because if we left the hydrogels attached to the bottom of the plates, instead of in suspension, the cells wouldn’t have been able to do that.


What’s the usefulness of these models?

Now that we have mammary tissues in the lab, we can have good models of early-stage breast cancers. And we also see that there’s milk protein being produced in these tissues, so we’re very excited about that. We could actually have human milk grown in [the] lab if we give them the right environment and we treat them with the right hormones.