8 October 2020
  • Walk the Walk Fellow and Breast Cancer Now scientist Dr Varešlija is studying how breast cancer spreads to the brain, where it becomes incurable, in the hope of revealing new treatment options

A leading scientist from the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences has been awarded a fellowship grant of over £660,000* to investigate how gene switches in breast cancer cells might make the disease more likely to spread to the brain and to find new ways to stop this from happening.

Breast Cancer Now is delighted to award this new five-year Fellowship to Dr Damir Varešlija, which has been primarily funded by breast cancer charity Walk the Walk. It is hoped this research could reveal new treatments that may help both improve quality of life and extend the lives of people living with secondary breast cancer in the brain.

An estimated 15–30% of patients with secondary breast cancer develop tumours in their brain,1 with the brain being a common site for breast cancer to spread to.

This spread of cancer to the brain can cause debilitating symptoms such as seizures, headaches, vomiting, and uncoordinated movement, which can severely affect a person’s quality of life. Treatment options are limited as the brain has a unique barrier (known as the blood-brain barrier) that protects it against anything harmful and prevents many targeted treatments and chemotherapy from reaching it. 

Now, Dr Damir Varešlija and his team are working to identify and understand the different gene switches which help breast cancer spread to the brain. This insight will not only offer targets for new drugs, but can also establish whether currently available drugs might be a safe and viable option.

Furthermore, if these switches can be reversed, this may help to prevent secondary breast cancer from developing in the brain.

Researchers will compare patient samples from both breast tumours and breast cancer tumours from the brain to identify which gene switches might be responsible for causing and facilitating the spread of breast cancer.

How active different genes are inside a cell can change how a cell behaves. Special gene switches can be added onto or removed from genes to change gene activity and therefore alter how a cell works.

Once the switches that increase the risk of breast cancer spreading to the brain have been identified, researchers hope to use drugs that can reverse or regulate them. They will be treating breast cancer cells grown in the lab with molecules which target gene switches and will take the top three successful molecules to test on breast cancer cells from brain tumours donated by people whose secondary breast cancer had spread.

If successful, the molecule which shows the most promise will be further tested in mouse models of breast cancer to see if it could be used to prevent the disease from spreading to the brain or to treat it once it had spread. It is hoped that this molecule could lead to new treatments being developed for people living with secondary breast cancer in the brain or people whose breast cancer is more likely to spread to the brain.

Dr Damir Varešlija, Lead Researcher at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, said:

I am thrilled and honoured to be awarded the Walk the Walk Fellowship. My team and I will be doing our absolute best to advance our understanding of what genes trick the brain into being a willing host for escaped breast cancer cells. This is an area of unmet clinical need and we are delighted that dedicated research will be invested into potentially developing our findings into treatments for the benefit of patients with brain metastatic breast cancer.

Dr Simon Vincent, Director of Research, Support and Influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said:

Dr Varešlija’s research could offer invaluable insight about the mechanisms that cause breast cancer to spread to the brain, and potentially offer a way to stop this from happening. With around 11,500 women still dying from breast cancer each year in the UK, research like this is vital to us finding new ways to prevent breast cancer from spreading and to treat it effectively when it does.

We are delighted to award this fellowship in collaboration with Walk the Walk, to help address a huge area of unmet need in breast cancer research that could help stop people dying from this disease. We look forward to some exciting developments as this research helps us to better understand how breast cancer spreads to the brain and what we can do to stop it.

In the meantime, anyone who is concerned about their breast cancer spreading can speak to one of our expert nurses by calling our free Helpline on 0808 800 6000.

Nina Barough CBE, Founder and Chief Executive, Walk the Walk Worldwide, said:

Walk the Walk has been investing funds for essential research by Breast Cancer Now for many years, so to be funding our own Fellowship, researching something we feel is vitally important for the advancement of cancer treatments, is an absolutely wonderful place to be. It feels particularly special to be doing this, at a time when cancer research, diagnosis, and treatment has been really impacted by COVID. Amidst such a catastrophic situation, there is a little bud of hope, as Dr Varešlija is working fully on this project.

The research Walk the Walk has funded previously has contributed to phenomenal leaps and bounds in terms of better understanding primary breast cancer, so that it can be treated more effectively if it’s found early enough.  Unfortunately, that isn’t the same for secondary cancers. For the last few years, it has been a passion of mine to fund research in this area – to try and find choices for those with secondary cancers and to prevent it being the death sentence that it currently is.

I really hope that in five years’ time, at the end of this Fellowship, that the current situation regarding secondaries will have moved on, and we will have a much better understanding of why breast cancer spreads to the brain. We can make a difference and that’s what we’re here to do.

Breast Cancer Now thanks Walk the Walk for making Dr Varešlija’s research possible, and for their previous grants which total £34 million investment in world-class breast cancer research.