Extracellular matrix (ECM) plays an important role in the maintenance of mammary epithelial differentiation in culture. We asked whether changes in mouse mammary specific function in vivo correlate with changes in the ECM. We showed, using expression of beta-casein as a marker, that the temporal expression of ECM-degrading proteinases and their inhibitors during lactation and involution are inversely related to functional differentiation. After a lactation period of 9 d, mammary epithelial cells maintained beta-casein expression up to 5 d of involution. Two metalloproteinases, 72-kD gelatinase (and its 62-kD active form), and stromelysin, and a serine proteinase tissue plasminogen activator were detected by day four of involution, and maintained expression until at least day 10. The expression of their inhibitors, the tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases (TIMP) and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1, preceded the onset of ECM-degrading proteinase expression and was detected by day two of involution, and showed a sharp peak of expression centered on days 4-6 of involution. When involution was accelerated by decreasing lactation to 2 d, there was an accelerated loss of beta-casein expression evident by day four and a shift in expression of ECM-remodeling proteinases and inhibitors to a focus at 2-4 d of involution. To further extend the correlation between mammary-specific function and ECM remodeling we initiated involution by sealing just one gland in an otherwise hormonally sufficient lactating animal. Alveoli in the sealed gland contained casein for at least 7 d after sealing, and closely resembled those in a lactating gland. The relative expression of TIMP in the sealed gland increased, whereas the expression of stromelysin was much lower than that of a hormone-depleted involuting gland, indicating that the higher the ratio of TIMP to ECM-degrading proteinases the slower the process of involution. To test directly the functional role of ECM-degrading proteinases in the loss of tissue-specific function we artificially perturbed the ECM-degrading proteinase-inhibitor ratio in a normally involuting gland by maintaining high concentrations of TIMP protein with the use of surgically implanted slow-release pellets. In a concentration-dependent fashion, involuting mammary glands that received TIMP implants maintained high levels of casein and delayed alveolar regression. These data suggest that the balance of ECM-degrading proteinases and their inhibitors regulates the organization of the basement membrane and the tissue-specific function of the mammary gland.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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