Introduction: Breast cancer is thought to arise in mammary epithelial stem cells. There is, therefore, a large amount of interest in identifying these cells. The breast is a complex tissue consisting of two epithelial layers (an outer myoepithelial/basal layer and an inner luminal epithelial layer) as well as a large non-epithelial component (fibroblasts, endothelial cells, lymphocytes, adipocytes, neurons and myocytes). The definitive identification of a mammary epithelial stem cell population is critically dependent on its purity. To date, this has been hampered by the lack of suitable markers to separate out the two epithelial layers, and to remove contaminating non-epithelial cells.
Methods: Mouse mammary glands were dissociated and stained with CD24. Cells were sorted into separate populations based on CD24 expression and assessed for luminal epithelial and myoepithelial/basal markers by direct fluorescent microscopy and real time PCR. The stem/progenitor potential of these cell populations was assessed in vivo by cleared mammary fat pad transplantation.
Results: Three populations of CD24 expressing cells were identified: CD24Negative, CD24Low and CD24High. Staining of these cells with cytokeratin markers revealed that these populations correspond to non-epithelial, myoepithelial/basal and luminal epithelial cells, respectively. Cell identities were confirmed by quantitative PCR. Cleared mammary fat pad transplantation of these cell populations revealed that extensive mammary fat pad repopulation capacity segregates with the CD24Low cells, whilst CD24High cells have limited repopulation capacity.
Conclusion: Differential staining of mammary epithelial cells for CD24 can be used to simultaneously isolate pure populations of non-epithelial, myoepithelial/basal and luminal epithelial cells. Furthermore, mammary fat pad repopulation capacity is enriched in the CD24Low population. As separation is achieved using a single marker, it will be possible to incorporate additional markers to further subdivide these populations. This will considerably facilitate the further analysis of mammary epithelial subpopulations, whilst ensuring high purity, which is key for understanding mammary epithelial stem cells in normal tissue biology and carcinogenesis.