What signals operate in the mammary niche?
Adult stem cells reside in a specialized microenvironment, the niche, which controls their behavior. As mammary stem cells, and consequently their niches, are still poorly defined, we look at better-characterized adult mammalian stem cell niches in the hematopoietic system and the skin. We attempt to define the mammary stem cell niche functionally, based on the widely used mammary fat pad reconstitution assay. We note that the concept of the niche needs to be extended from the specialized microenvironment described in the hematopoietic system, to a model that takes into account the macroenviroment, as recently shown in the skin, and systemic clues as we will illustrate for the mammary gland where the reproductive hormones are major determinants of stem cell activation. In fact, in the mammary gland a special type of stem cells is determined only during pregnancy. Reproductive hormones act on hormone receptor positive cells, sensor cells, in the mammary epithelium to induce paracrine signaling that leads to activation of stem cells. Some of the downstream mediators are in common with other niches such as Wnt and possibly Notch signaling. Other signals are specific to the mammary gland such as amphiregulin and RANKL.