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Efficient, Reproducible Immortalization of Normal Human Mammary Epithelial Cells (HMECs) Using Pathologically Relevant Agents




Martha Stampfer and James Garbe of Berkeley Lab and their colleagues at the University of Arizona have developed an advanced human cell culture technology that for the first time allows experimental examination of the immortalization step in human cancer progression and provides a method to assay therapeutics that could inhibit cancer progression at the premalignant stage.

The Berkeley Lab approach is the first to efficiently and reproducibly immortalize normal human mammary epithelial cells (HMEC) using agents associated with breast cancer development in vivo. The technology is based on the Berkeley Lab researchers’ discovery that the introduction of a common breast cancer–associated oncogene into HMEC with a defective retinoblastoma pathway will induce expression of telomerase, the enzymatic activity required for immortality.

Since immortalization is necessary for human cells to become carcinomas, targeted therapeutics that prevent or reverse immortalization could be of great value in the prevention or treatment of a wide range of human cancers, including multiple breast cancer subtypes. The Berkeley Lab invention, which directly inactivates tumor-suppressive barriers to produce transformed human cell lines lacking passenger errors, will facilitate identifying and targeting the processes that drive the immortalization of cancer cells in humans.

The Berkeley Lab invention represents a significant advancement in breast cancer research. Studies that utilize small short-lived animals such as mice to study cancer progression are unable to examine the immortalization step since mouse cells, unlike human, do not normally suppress telomerase activity and can spontaneously immortalize. Previous work with human cells has been unable to achieve reproducible immortalization using agents that mimic in vivo processes during carcinogenesis. By directly targeting the tumor-suppressive senescence barriers in normal human cells, the Berkeley Lab researchers have discovered the key to overcoming the most difficult barrier in the prevention of cancer progression, and to providing a method for examining this process and developing effective therapies.  

DEVELOPMENT STAGE: Proven principle

STATUS: Patent pending.  Available for licensing or collaborative research.


LaBarge, M.A., Garbe, J.C., and Stampfer, M.R., “Processing of Human Reduction Mammoplasty and Mastectomy Tissues for Cell Culture,” J.Vis. Exp. (71), e50011, 2013.

Garbe, J.C., Pepin, F., Pelissier, F.A., et al., “Accumulation of Multipotent Progenitors with a Basal Differentiation Bias during Aging of Human Mammary Epithelia,” Cancer Res 72:3687–3701, 2012.

Garbe, J.C., Bhattacharya, S., Merchant, B., Bassett, E., Swisshelm, K., Feiler, H.S., Wyrobek, A.J., and Stampfer, M.R., “Molecular Distinctions between Stasis and Telomere Attrition Senescence Barriers Shown by Long-term Culture of Normal Human Mammary Epithelial Cells,” Cancer Res 69: issue 19, 2009.

Stampfer, M.R., LaBarge, M.A., Garbe, J.C. “An Integrated Human Mammary Epithelial Cell Culture System for Studying Carcinogenesis and Aging,” Cell and Molecular Biology of Breast Cancer, pp. 323-361, 2013. (book)


Tracking and Quantifying Organization of Epithelial Cells, IB-2903

Long Term Growth of Finite Life Span Normal Human Epithelial Cells, IB-2077


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