Researchers from Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute have discovered that breast stem cells and their "daughters" have a much longer lifespan than previously thought, and are active in puberty and throughout life.
"Given that these stem cells - and their 'daughter' progenitor cells - can live for such a long time and are capable of self renewing, damage to their genetic code could lead to breast cancer 10 or 20 years later," said Professor Geoff Lindeman.
The team has discovered that breast stem cells actively maintain breast tissues for most of an individual's life and contribute to all major stages of breast development, said the research published in the journal Nature.
The finding is also integral to identifying the "cells of origin" of breast cancer and the ongoing quest to develop new treatments and diagnostics for the disease.
"We hope that it would lead to the development of new treatment and diagnostic strategies in the clinic to help women with breast cancer in the future," the researchers added.
According to co-researcher Professor Jane Visvader, understanding the hierarchy and development of breast cells was critical for identifying the cells that give rise to breast cancer, and how and why these cells become cancerous.
The project should also confirm that breast stem cells were "true" stem cells capable of renewing themselves and making all the cells of the mammary gland, the study said.