Progesterone is considered as the pregnancy hormone and acts on many different target tissues. Progesterone receptor (PR) signaling is important for normal development and the physiologic function of the breast and impinges on breast carcinogenesis. Both systemically and locally, in the breast epithelium, there are multiple layers of complexity to progesterone action, many of which have been revealed through experiments in mice. The hormone acts via its receptor expressed in a subset of cells, the sensor cells, in the breast epithelium with different signaling outcomes in individual cells eliciting distinct cell-intrinsic and paracrine signaling involving different mediators for different intercellular interactions. PR expression itself is developmentally regulated and the biological outcome of PR signaling depends on the developmental stage of the mammary gland and the endocrine context. During both puberty and adulthood PR activates stem and progenitor cells through Wnt4-driven activation of the myoepithelium with downstream Adamts18-induced changes in extracellualr matrix (ECM) / basal membrane (BM). During estrous cycling and pregnancy, the hormone drives a major cell expansion through Rankl. At all stages, PR signaling is closely tied to estrogen receptor α (ER) signaling. As the PR itself is a target gene of ER, the complex interactions are experimentally difficult to dissect and still poorly understood. Ex vivo models of the human breast and studies on biopsy samples show that major signaling axes are conserved across species. New intraductal xenograft models hold promise to provide a better understanding of PR signaling in the normal breast epithelium and in breast cancer development in the near future.
Keywords: Adamts18; Rankl; Wnt4; breast carcinogenesis; cell proliferation; mammary gland development; stem cells.