One tissue, many cellular functions

Scanning electron micrograph of milk producing cells having just secreted milk fats and proteins

Considered by many as one of the most regenerative organs in the adult female, Felicity Davis sees the mammary gland as a treasure trove of knowledge around cell death, tissue remodelling and other processes.

The mammary gland – a reservoir for adult stem cells – undergoes extraordinary transformations from development to lactation to weaning. With each new pregnancy, the rounds of tissue expansion and cell death are recapitulated.

Felicity is keen to uncover the functional mechanisms within the mammary gland at a fundamental level. In particular, she’s interested in how calcium signalling is involved in regulating cellular behaviour and organ function.

“In pregnancy, we see this massive remodelling when the mammary gland becomes a functional gland that produces milk. We really don’t understand the mechanisms that enable the milk to be secreted or ejected, or the sensory pathways involved,” says Felicity. “Having mammary glands is one of the things that defines us as mammals, and yet we really don’t understand how they work.”

[Image: Milk producing cells after secretion of milk fats and proteins]

To investigate how cells respond to stimuli from their surroundings, Felicity’s team study mammary gland biology using genetically engineered animal models in which the cells glow when calcium signals are detected. Together with fast confocal microscopy, her team can examine the behaviour of individual cells receiving and responding to external cues. Observing the cells within the mammary tissue, they can visualise how one cell coordinates with a network of cells to control the overall biological process.

Felicity joined the EMBL Australia Node in Single Molecule Science as a new group leader in January 2021. She is funded by multiple NHMRC grants – including an Ideas grant that she secured in the recent funding round – as well as a prestigious Young Investigator Grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. With the Danish funding that spans 7 years, Felicity will also be establishing a research group in the Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University in 2021, splitting her time between Australia and Denmark.

The funding awarded to Felicity will enable ambitious research programs marrying together mammary gland biology and calcium signalling. Advances made in these programs will improve the understanding of the cellular biology involved in different functional processes.

Date Published: 
Thursday, 4 February 2021