We have awarded leading scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, Dublin, more than €200,000 to investigate how breast tumours spread to the brain.

Thursday 29 November 2018      Latest research Our research
Prof Leonie Young

Professor Leonie Young

With the new funding, Professor Leonie Young, Dr Damir Varešlija and the Endocrine Oncology Research team will also explore whether drugs could help control, or even prevent the formation of these secondary tumours.

Nearly 2,800 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the Republic of Ireland. While more women are surviving the disease than ever before, if tumours begin to spread around the body – known as ‘secondary’ or ‘metastatic’ breast cancer – the disease unfortunately becomes incurable. 

While secondary breast cancer can sometimes be controlled, it cannot be cured, and almost all of the 700 women that die as a result of breast cancer each year in Ireland will have seen their cancer spread.

The brain is a common place for the disease to spread to, with a significant number of secondary breast cancer patients developing brain metastases. These secondary tumours in the brain can be particularly aggressive, sometimes giving patients just months to live. In addition, they can severely affect quality of life – with symptoms including changes in mood or behaviour, seizures, headaches, vomiting and uncoordinated movement, depending on where in the brain the tumours form. 

One of the main challenges in treating breast cancer that has spread to the brain is developing drugs that can cross the brain’s security network – the blood-brain barrier. Whilst the blood-brain barrier acts as a protective filter, preventing harmful substances from reaching the brain, it can also filter out drugs, and so treatment options to control breast cancer in the brain are currently limited. 

Professor Leonie Young and Dr Varešlija have recently discovered that genetic switches that activate a protein called RET are particularly common in breast tumours that have spread to the brain – suggesting the molecule may play a key role.

Professor Young and her colleague Dr Varešlija now aim to uncover the exact role of RET in the spread of breast cancer to the brain. In cells grown in the lab, the researchers will examine how silencing the gene that produces RET, or blocking the molecule itself, can affect breast cancer cells’ ability to multiply, invade and spread. 

Using cutting-edge CRISPR technology, researchers will investigate whether removing RET from tumour cells impacts breast cancer cells’ ability to seed new tumours in the brain in metastatic mouse models. The team will then explore whether an experimental drug blocking RET can cross the blood-brain barrier in mice, as well as uncovering how RET activates other molecules that could be driving growth and spread of breast cancer cells to the brain.

With similar drugs already being evaluated in the clinic to treat lung and thyroid cancers, it is hoped that drugs blocking RET could be accelerated into trials for breast cancer that has spread to the brain. Successful trials could ultimately help improve the quality of life for those living with incurable secondary breast cancer, and could potentially give thousands of patients more time to live.

Dedicated to funding the most cutting-edge research to stop the disease taking lives, Breast Cancer Now has invested over £200 million to date into world-class research. The charity is currently funding around a third of all breast cancer research happening in the UK, supporting nearly 380 leading scientists across the UK and Ireland.

Professor Leonie Young, Professor at the Department of Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, said:

Brain metastases truly represent an unmet need in current cancer care which urgently needs more investment into basic, translational and clinical research. 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 Simon Vincent, Director of Research at Breast Cancer Now, said:

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.
Our ambition is that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live, and live well. This project could help bring us one step closer to this goal, and with the continued help of our supporters, we can fund more world-class research like this. It’s time to act.