Project details

Researcher: Dr Damir Varešlija
Where: Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
Research Theme: Secondary Breast Cancer

Breast cancer that has spread to the brain can be particularly hard to treat and severely affects people’s quality of life. Walk the Walk Fellow Dr Damir Varešlija is looking at how gene switches in breast cancer cells might make them more likely to spread to the brain and hopes to find ways to stop this from happening.

The challenge

When breast cancer spreads around the body, while it can be treated, it can’t be cured. Almost all deaths from breast cancer are because of the disease spreading to other areas of the body. Up to 30% of people whose breast cancer has spread will develop tumours in the brain. Due to their location, these tumours are particularly hard to treat and there are few targeted treatment options available. Breast cancer in the brain can also have a severe impact on quality of life. We desperately need to find new ways to both prevent and treat breast cancer in the brain.

The science behind the project

How active different genes are inside a cell can change how it behaves. Special switches can be added onto or removed from genes that can change gene activity and therefore alter how a cell works. During Walk the Walk Fellowship, Dr Varešlija will investigate how these gene switches work in breast cancer cells and how some of them may be helping cancer spread to the brain.

Dr Varešlija will study both breast tumours and tumours from the brain that have been donated by people with breast cancer. He will compare these samples to find out which gene switches might be responsible for breast cancer spreading to the brain.

Dr Varešlija will then look for ways to reverse these switches in breast cancer cells grown in the lab by treating cells with molecules which target these switches. He will then test the top three molecules in breast cancer cells from brain tumours donated by people with breast cancer, to see whether they change how cancer cells grow and survive.

The molecule which shows the most promise will then be tested in mouse models of breast cancer that has spread to the brain to see if it could be used to prevent the disease from spreading to the brain or treat it once it has spread.

What difference will this project make?

The hope is that this research could reveal new treatments to stop breast cancer spreading to the brain or to treat breast cancer if it has spread there. As treatment options are currently so limited, finding ways to do this could extend lives and vastly improve the quality of life for people living with secondary breast cancer in the brain.

Breast Cancer Now thanks Walk the Walk for making Dr Vareslija’s research possible.