School of Medicine

UC Irvine researchers to map breast cells for Human Cell Atlas project

Microscopic view of human breast cells stained to show cell markers.
Dennis Ma, PhD / Kessenbrock Lab, UC Irvine Department of Biological Chemistry
A microscopic look at breast tissue cells that have been stained to show epithelial cell markers.

The initiative seeks to learn how, when and why breast diseases begin

Irvine, Calif., Nov. 15, 2017 — As part of a massive scientific effort to map all cell types of the human body, called the Human Cell Atlas Initiative, UC Irvine researchers will be working on a pilot grant to begin the mapping process for healthy cells of the breast.

The grant, shared by researchers Devon Lawson, PhD, and Kai Kessenbrock, PhD, with scientists at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, comes from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative begun by Dr. Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The initiative will be a major funding source of the Human Cell Atlas. The funding was allotted through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Lawson and Kessenbrock are both affiliated with the UC Irvine Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The goal is to map all of the breast cells’ properties, including the gene signatures that describe specific cell states, to understand how and when diseases, including cancer begin, so that doctors can intervene earlier and in more targeted ways.

Devon Lawson, PhD, cancer researcher and assistant professor at UC Irvine School of Medicine's Department of Physiology & Biophysics.
Devon Lawson, PhD

"Just the breast alone is a very complex organ," said Lawson, assistant professor in UC Irvine School of Medicine's Department of of Physiology & Biophysics. "We’ve done some work already in this area. There are 12 to 20 different cell populations — epithelial, endothelial, different kinds of immune cells, a lot of fat cells."

Most of the necessary cells for this study come either from women who have developed cancer in one breast and decide on prophylactic mastectomy of the healthy breast as well, or from women who have breast-reduction surgery, Lawson said.

That raises new complexities: Are the cells of a woman who has gotten breast cancer somehow different, even in the healthy breast, from those of most other women? Women who have breast reductions performed are generally large-breasted; could that mean different cellular properties as well?

Molecular biologist Kai Kessenbrock, PhD, cancer researcher and assistant professor at UC Irvine School of Medicine's Department of Biological Chemistry.
Kai Kessenbrock, PhD

For the pilot program, however, these cells are enough.

Lawson’s area of research has been metastasis of breast cancer cells; almost all breast cancer deaths are caused by metastatic disease.

Her partner in the atlas project is molecular biologist Kessenbrock, assistant professor of biological chemistry, whose research focuses on identifying biomarkers for early detection of breast cancer, perhaps before it even develops.

With the development of the cell atlas, Kessenbrock said, "we will now be able to understand how the tissue is composed on a cell-by-cell level, so we’ll be able to detect when it deviates from normal.

"Furthermore, cancer might not develop in individual cells alone. It might involve the whole system, including cell-to-cell communications and systems-level changes. This is where our big gap on knowledge is right now."

A third UC Irvine researcher, Jered Haun, is working on building technology that will enable better research on mapping cancer cells for future cell atlas projects.

"The thing is, tumors are tissues, not a single-cell suspension like a blood cell,” said Haun, assistant professor of biomedical engineering in UC Irvine's Henry Samueli School of Engineering. "How can you take tissue and create a single-cell suspension? You bathe them in enzymes. But we wanted to develop something that would be faster, more efficient, give a better yield."

Haun is looking at the addition of fluid forces to speed the process, and creating machinery that will carry out the process automatically. “At this point, there’s a lot of manual labor involved,” he said. “I’m the engineer. The goal of my lab is to develop tools.”

About the University of California, Irvine:
UC Irvine, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, the university has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.8 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UC Irvine, visit