Key stages in mammary gland development: the cues that regulate ductal branching morphogenesis

Breast Cancer Res. 2006;8(1):201. doi: 10.1186/bcr1368. Epub 2005 Dec 5.


Part of how the mammary gland fulfills its function of producing and delivering adequate amounts of milk is by forming an extensive tree-like network of branched ducts from a rudimentary epithelial bud. This process, termed branching morphogenesis, begins in fetal development, pauses after birth, resumes in response to estrogens at puberty, and is refined in response to cyclic ovarian stimulation once the margins of the mammary fat pad are met. Thus it is driven by systemic hormonal stimuli that elicit local paracrine interactions between the developing epithelial ducts and their adjacent embryonic mesenchyme or postnatal stroma. This local cellular cross-talk, in turn, orchestrates the tissue remodeling that ultimately produces a mature ductal tree. Although the precise mechanisms are still unclear, our understanding of branching in the mammary gland and elsewhere is rapidly improving. Moreover, many of these mechanisms are hijacked, bypassed, or corrupted during the development and progression of cancer. Thus a clearer understanding of the underlying endocrine and paracrine pathways that regulate mammary branching may shed light on how they contribute to cancer and how their ill effects might be overcome or entirely avoided.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Cell Communication
  • Eosinophils / physiology
  • ErbB Receptors / physiology
  • Estrogens / physiology
  • Humans
  • Macrophages / physiology
  • Mammary Glands, Human / embryology*
  • Mammary Glands, Human / growth & development*
  • Paracrine Communication*
  • Puberty
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / physiology


  • Estrogens
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Receptor, ErbB-2