Zinc is an essential trace element required by all living organisms. An adequate supply of zinc is particularly important in the neonatal period. Zinc is a significant component of breast milk, which is transported across the maternal epithelia during lactation. The mechanisms by which zinc becomes a constituent of breast milk have not been elucidated. The function of the zinc transporter ZnT4 in the transport of zinc into milk during lactation was previously demonstrated by studies of a mouse mutant, the ‘lethal milk’ mouse, where a mutation in the ZnT4 gene decreased the transport of zinc into milk. In the present study, we have investigated the expression of the human orthologue of ZnT4 (hZnT4) in the human breast. We detected hZnT4 mRNA expression in the tissue from the resting and lactating human breast, using reverse-transcriptase PCR. Western-blot analysis using antibodies to peptide sequences of hZnT4 detected a major band of the predicted size of 47kDa and a minor band of 77kDa, in extracts from the resting and lactating breast tissues. There was no difference in the hZnT4 expression levels between lactating and resting breasts. The hZnT4 protein was present in the luminal cells of the ducts and alveoli where it had a granular distribution. A cultured human breast epithelial cell line PMC42 was used to investigate the subcellular distribution of hZnT4 and this showed a granular label throughout the cytoplasm, consistent with a vesicular localization. The presence of zinc-containing intracellular vesicles was demonstrated by using the zinc-specific fluorphore Zinquin (ethyl-[2-methyl-8-p-toluenesulphonamido-6-quinolyloxy]acetate). Double labelling indicated that there was no obvious overlap between Zinquin and the hZnT4 protein, suggesting that hZnT4 was not directly involved in the transport of zinc into vesicles. We detected expression of two other members of the hZnT family, hZnT1 and hZnT3, in human breast epithelial cells. We conclude that hZnT4 is constitutively expressed in the human breast and may be one of the several members of the ZnT family involved in the transport of zinc into milk.

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