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This study was carried out to investigate mammary tumorigenesis in growth hormone (GH) deficient spontaneous dwarf rats (SDR). At 50-60 days of age, the rats were divided into five groups. Group 1 received bovine (b) GH (prolonged release formulation) administered at a dose of 40-50 mg/kg body wt. in 50 μl weekly injections; group 2 received recombinant human insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) at a dose of 1 mg/kg body wt./day administered via osmotic pumps; animals in group 3 were fitted with subcutaneous silastic capsule containing 30 μg 17β-estradiol (E2) plus 30 mg progesterone (P4), replaced every 2 months; group 4 received both bGH and E2 plus P4 treatments at the same doses as above, and control animals (group 5) received sham treatments (vegetable oil injection, silastic capsules containing cellulose). After 1 week of treatment, all animals were injected intraperitoneally with the carcinogen N-methyl-N-nitrosourea (MNU) at a dose of 50 mg/kg body wt. Other groups of animals, receiving identical hormonal treatment to those exposed to MNU, were treated for 10 days only and then sacrificed for assessment of circulating concentrations of hormones and mammary gland characteristics at the time of carcinogen exposure. The hormonal treatments of the animals exposed to the MNU were continued for an additional 20 weeks and mammary tumor development monitored by weekly palpation and tumors collected as necessary. The rats were weighed weekly. At the end of the treatment period, all animals were sacrificed and remaining tumors were collected. Rats in all groups continued to gain weight throughout the experimental period, but the largest weight gain was see in animals receiving GH either alone or with E2 and P4. Animals treated with IGF-I also gained weight compared to controls, but this weight gain was less than that seen in GH-treated rats. GH treatment alone increased mammary tumor incidence from 4.8% in controls to 100%. Average tumor load and latency in the GH-treated rats were 7.0 ± 0.8 tumors/tumor-bearing rat (mean ± SEM) and 57.3 ± 2.7 days (mean ± SEM), respectively. As in intact Sprague-Dawley rats, approximately 90% of the tumors that developed in the GH-treated rats were ovarian dependent for growth. IGF-I treatment also increased mammary tumor development to 62.5%. Average tumor load and latency in the IGF-I-treated rats were 1.6 ± 0.4 tumors/tumor-bearing rat (mean ± SEM) and 96.2 ± 14.5 days (mean ± SEM), respectively. However E2 + P4 treatments did not significantly alter tumorigenesis and, surprisingly, simultaneous treatment with E2 + P4 and GH obliterated the GH-stimulated increase in tumor development. Prolactin (PRL) did not appear to influence mammary tumorigenesis in the SDRs, as untreated SDRs had significantly elevated serum concentration of PRL as compared with normal Sprague-Dawley (SD) rats, whereas GH-treated SDRs had PRL levels similar to that of normal SD rats. No obvious structural characteristics were associated with high or low susceptibility to mammary tumorigenesis, as assessed by mammary gland whole mounts from the different animal groups sacrificed at the time of carcinogen administration. Enhanced expression of the extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2 (ERK1/2), and activation (phosphorylation) of ERK1/2 were associated with an increase in mammary tumorigenesis. Similarly, the expression of the estrogen receptor-α (ERα) was significantly elevated in animal groups with the highest susceptibility to tumorigenesis, whereas the levels of cyclin D1 expression were not related to mammary tumorigenesis.