The 1-methyl-1-nitrosourea-induced rat mammary tumor model system is well studied, reproducible, and widely used. We have investigated whether these tumors possess higher telomerase activity than normal mammary tissue. Using the telomeric repeat amplification protocol assay, we found significantly higher telomerase activity in 36 mammary carcinomas than in 72 mammary glands of virgin rats. The level of telomerase activity in virgin rats was unaffected by strain, age, stage of the estrous cycle, or ovariectomy. However, mammary glands obtained from pregnant rats exhibited telomerase activity comparable to that found in the tumors, possibly reflecting the high epithelial content of these tissues. Indeed, isolated epithelial cells from virgin and pregnant mammary glands and from carcinomas had similar telomerase activities. Thus, telomerase activity is constitutive in the rat mammary epithelium and is not a unique characteristic of malignant transformation in this tissue. These results underscore the importance of attributing biochemical properties to specific cell types in a tissue, a situation not paralleled in the interpretation of data from in vitro models.
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