Mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV), which was discovered as a milk‑transmitted, infectious cancer-inducing agent in the 1930s, has been used since that time as an animal model for the study of human breast cancer. Like other complex retroviruses, MMTV encodes a number of accessory proteins that both facilitate infection and affect host immune response. In vivo, the virus predominantly infects lymphocytes and mammary epithelial cells. High level infection of mammary epithelial cells ensures efficient passage of virus to the next generation. It also results in mammary tumor induction, since the MMTV provirus integrates into the mammary epithelial cell genome during viral replication and activates cellular oncogene expression. Thus, mammary tumor induction is a by-product of the infection cycle. A number of important oncogenes have been discovered by carrying out MMTV integration site analysis, some of which may play a role in human breast cancer.
Because MMTV has existed as an infectious virus in mice for millions of years, it has evolved to take advantage of its host’s biology, using host genes from transcription factors to immune regulatory molecules, to establish infection. Although it causes mammary tumors, this does not occur until relatively late in life and thus the virus has persisted, since infected mothers are able to transmit virus to offspring. The lack of acute MMTV-induced pathogenesis is most likely due to different host means of limiting virus infection, including factors that operate at the cellular level like intrinsic restriction factors and immune response genes. As additional host-antiviral genes are discovered, MMTV will continue to serve as an important model for testing the ability of these factors to function in vivo. In addition to serving as an important means for studying virus infection, MMTV has provided a number of critical models for understanding human breast cancer. Finally, the use of the MMTV LTR to direct oncogene expression to murine epithelial cells has resulted in the creation of numerous transgenic mouse strains that serve as critical models for understanding human breast cancer. It is likely that such transgenic mice will continue to be a critical tool as additional human breast cancer genes are identified through large-scale human genetic studies.