The news comes on Secondary Breast Cancer Awareness Day (Friday 13 October 2017), as leading charity Breast Cancer Now announces more than £700,000 of funding across the UK for research specifically targeting secondary breast cancer – where the disease has spread to another part of the body.

While metastatic breast cancer can be controlled for some time with different treatments, it sadly cannot yet be cured – and almost all of the 11,500 women that die as a result of breast cancer each year in the UK will have seen their cancer spread. In West Yorkshire alone, more than 1,600 women are diagnosed with early breast cancer every year, and around 350 women in the region sadly lose their lives each year having seen their disease spread.1

The most common sites for breast cancer to spread to are the bone, lung, liver and brain – with roughly one in three people who are diagnosed with secondary breast cancer seeing their disease spread to the brain. Brain metastases can cause varying problems with brain function depending on which areas of the brain the breast cancer cells have spread to, and can often severely affect a patient’s quality of life – with debilitating symptoms such as changes in mood or behaviour, seizures, headaches, vomiting and uncoordinated movement.

Radiotherapy, steroids and surgery are the main treatments that help control breast cancer that has spread to the brain, however unfortunately, most patients with secondary cancer in the brain have too many tumours to be removed surgically.

One trick that metastatic breast cancer cells use to ensure they can survive and grow is to create their own blood vessels (a process called angiogenesis). Dr Georgia Mavria – based at the University of Leeds – has previously found that a molecule called DOCK4 helps breast cancer cells access a blood supply when they spread to the brain. This previous work – funded by Breast Cancer Now – discovered that DOCK4 plays key roles in both angiogenesis and metastasis.

With new funding from Breast Cancer Now, Dr Mavria is to now undertake a three-year project to uncover exactly how DOCK4 is involved in metastasis and angiogenesis, as well as investigating if levels of DOCK4 in a tumour could be used to predict whether breast cancer will spread to the brain.

Dr Mavria and her team will investigate how well breast cancer cells that lack DOCK4 are able to metastasise to the brain when implanted into mice. The team will also explore – using advanced imaging techniques – how removing DOCK4 affects the development of new blood vessels in the brain and around breast tumours. Using samples from the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank, Dr Mavria will investigate whether the amount of DOCK4 present in tumours could be used to predict whether breast cancer is more likely to spread to the brain.

Dr Georgia Mavria, Group Leader and Deputy Head of Brain Tumour Research at the University of Leeds, said:

“With this funding from Breast Cancer Now we can really start testing our hypothesis that blocking DOCK4 can stop breast cancer cells spreading to the brain. Breast Cancer Now has helped us from an early stage with a pilot grant, and this new funding will enable us to shed more light into this deadly process.”

Fiona Leslie, 49 from Aylesbury, is living with incurable metastatic breast cancer. Having first been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, Fiona underwent a course of chemotherapy, before learning that her breast cancer had unfortunately spread to her lungs and her spine. She underwent a mastectomy and radiotherapy and began receiving the revolutionary drug Kadcyla, which kept her disease at bay for over two years, and enabled her to live a relatively normal life in the meantime.

However in June 2017, scans showed that Fiona’s breast cancer had spread to her brain:

“When you get the diagnosis that your breast cancer has reached your brain it is utterly terrifying. All you want to know is that something can be done to help. I received Whole Brain Radiotherapy in Oxford, which looks like it is helping, but to know that there may be something more effective in the future, thanks to Professor Sibson’s research, is wonderful.

“Secondary breast cancer is the breast cancer that kills – and many of us living with this incurable disease feel forgotten. Great progress has been made in treating breast cancer, but those of us living with secondaries are the ones who will die.

“Breast Cancer Now’s commitment to research that stops the disease spreading and stops women dying gives us not only reassurance but hope. Thousands of women are waiting desperately for more effective treatment combinations that can reach the brain and we urgently need more funding for research like this.”

Dr Richard Berks, Senior Research Communications Officer at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“Dr Mavria’s research will help us understand how DOCK4 enables breast cancer to spread to the brain, and whether it could be a valid drug target for tackling brain metastases. This research could lead to new ways to predict and prevent secondary breast cancer, which could ultimately save lives.

“Our ambition is that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live. But if we are to achieve this, we desperately need to raise funds for research to find ways to stop the disease spreading.

“Dr Mavria’s project could help bring us one step closer to our 2050 vision and we’d like to thank our supporters across Yorkshire who continue to help make potentially life-saving research like this possible.”

1. Source of information: Local incidence and mortality survival statistics were provided on request by Public Health England, April 2017 – similar data are available from  Figures are based upon averages for 2012-2014.