Dublin-based scientists have been awarded funding to investigate how breast cancer tumours spread to the brain.
Almost 2,800 women are newly diagnosed with breast cancer every year in Ireland, and while survival rates have increased, if the breast tumours begin to spread to other parts of the body, which is known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer, the disease becomes incurable.
Almost all of the 700 women who die as a result of breast cancer in Ireland every year have experienced their cancer spreading. The brain is a common place for the disease to spread to and these secondary tumours can be very aggressive.
They can have a big impact on quality of life, due to symptoms such as headaches, seizures, mood/behaviour changes, vomiting and uncoordinated movement.
One challenge that scientists face when treating breast cancer that has spread to the brain is how to develop drugs that can cross the brain's security network - the blood-brain barrier. This acts as a protective filter, preventing harmful substances from reaching the brain, but it can also filter out useful drugs, meaning treatment options are limited.
However, scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) have now been awarded over €200,000 by the UK's largest breast cancer charity, Breast Cancer Now, to investigate this area further.
They recently discovered that genetic switches that activate the protein, RET, are very common in breast cancer tumours that have spread to the brain, suggesting that they may have a key role to play.
With this new funding, Prof Leonie Young, Dr Damir Varešlija and the Endocrine Oncology Research team in the RCSI, aim to uncover the exact role of RET in the spread of breast cancer to the brain.
They plan to grow cells in the lab and then investigate how silencing the gene that produces RET, or blocking RET itself, may affect breast cancer cells' ability to spread.
Their tests will involve mice, however as similar drugs are already being evaluated to treat lung and thyroid cancers, it is hoped that RET-blocking drugs could be accelerated into trials for breast cancer that has spread to the brain.
It is hoped that successful trials could help to improve and prolong the lives of those living with metastatic breast cancer.
"Brain metastases truly represent an unmet need in current cancer care which urgently needs more investment. Having our research funded by Breast Cancer Now will allow us to pursue what is promising to be a very intriguing target that could potentially stop breast cancer cells from spreading to the brain in the first place," Dr Young explained.
This research was described as ‘vital' by Breast Cancer Now director, Dr Simon Vincent.
"Professor Young's vital research could pave the way for trials of new treatments to control breast cancer that has spread to the brain. Not only is secondary breast cancer incurable, but when tumours spread to the brain, the side-effects can be extremely debilitating. We urgently need to develop new treatments to give these patients more time to live, and to help improve their quality of life,' he commented.
Breast Cancer Now currently supports almost 380 researchers at 31 institutions across the UK and Ireland.
*Pictured is Prof Leonie Young of the RCSI