The Image: "Recreating the Breast in a Culture Dish"
This image represents human breast cells growing in 3D culture conditions that favor their self-organization into structures that recreate those found in the breast: acini, where milk is produced (spherical), and ducts, the tubes which transport milk to the nipple. The branching ducts seen in this image justifies calling this arrangement a "mammary tree". The formation of ducts is an important feature of the 3D culture models that I work with, since these are the prevalent structures in the resting mammary gland (non-lactating) and the sites where cancer develops. Thus, these 3D cultures are physiologically relevant models in which normal breast tissue development and breast cancer can be studied. I have adapted these 3D culture models to follow the cells and their matrix remodeling from single cells to the formation of structures using confocal live imaging and recording the process. The plot of these movies is the breast cells sensing their surroundings and trying to find cues in the environment (matrix) that will tell them how to organize into structures. They can also communicate with neighbor cells by altering the matrix, in this way there is a constant feedback between cells and matrix.
This image of a 3D culture whole mount was captured at low-magnification using a stereoscope to obtain a large depth of field. The carmine-alum dye used to stain the nuclei of these cells gives the structures a deep pink color. The light pink background was obtained by playing with exposure time.
Dr. Lucia Speroni received her Ph.D degree in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, she studied the role of the tissue context in tumor malignancy. Her research interest brought her to Tufts University School of Medicine in 2010. In the laboratory of Drs. Soto and Sonnenschein she studied the complex cell-matrix interactions that are involved in the development of the breast tissue. She developed a 3D culture model that enables, for the first time, the study of the link between mechanical forces and hormone action on breast morphogenesis in vitro.
Are you currently working in a lab setting or pursuing work in art + science?
Almost every experiment results in a piece of art. The images of breast epithelial cells forming 3D structures from a single cell in culture are definitely frame-worthy. When you record the dynamics of cells changing shape, duplicating and modifying the surrounding matrix, you think: all this movie lacks is a soundtrack.
Did you ever have an “aha!” moment when you knew you wanted to pursue a career in science? Did you intend for this path to include art + design?
I come from a molecular biology background originally. Back in those days, the prevalent idea was that cancer was a matter of mutations, or of certain genes being highly expressed or repressed. While I was working on my PhD thesis, I noticed that the same tumor cell line would originate different tumors depending on the tissue context. That is, a cell behaves the way it does because of its context. The complexity of tumor development has kept me intrigued ever since.
Experiments, while they may not be conventional art, they still involve the concept of design, since they require creativity, planning on sketchbooks, and finally, admiration of the result.