The steroid hormones 17 beta-estradiol and progesterone play a central role in the pathogenesis of breast cancer and regulate key phases of mammary gland development. This suggests that developmental regulatory molecules whose activity is influenced by ovarian hormones may also contribute to mammary carcinogenesis. In a screen designed to identify protein kinases expressed in the mammary gland, we previously identified a novel SNF1-related serine/threonine kinase, Hunk (hormonally upregulated Neu-associated kinase). During postnatal mammary development, Hunk mRNA expression is restricted to a subset of mammary epithelial cells and is temporally regulated with highest levels of expression occurring during early pregnancy. In addition, treatment of mice with 17 beta-estradiol and progesterone results in the rapid and synergistic upregulation of Hunk expression in a subset of mammary epithelial cells, suggesting that the expression of this kinase may be regulated by ovarian hormones. Consistent with the tightly regulated pattern of Hunk expression during pregnancy, mammary glands from transgenic mice engineered to misexpress Hunk in the mammary epithelium manifest temporally distinct defects in epithelial proliferation and differentiation during pregnancy, and fail to undergo normal lobuloalveolar development. Together, these observations suggest that Hunk may contribute to changes in the mammary gland that occur during pregnancy in response to ovarian hormones.

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