According to research presented at the National Cancer Research Institute Cancer Conference (held held 2–5 November, Liverpool, UK), scientists have identified a pattern of genetic switches that are linked to breast cancer’s spread to the brain.
The researchers, based at the University of Wolverhampton (UK), examined 24 breast cancers that had spread to the brain, as well as samples from the primary breast tumor, and found some genes with faulty switches.
Specifically, two of the genetic switches appeared to have been faulty from early on in the development of the breast cancer, suggesting that there may be an early detection marker for tumors that spread to the brain. The group is now trying to develop a blood test to detect these markers at an early stage, before brain metastasis occurs.
Each year in the UK almost 50,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and around 11,600 die from the disease. Up to 30% of breast cancers eventually spread to the brain, often many years after the primary tumor was treated. Attacking secondary brain tumors with radiotherapy and surgery only has limited success, with most women surviving 7 months after diagnosis of the brain metastasis.
By comparing DNA methylation between the primary breast cancer and the secondary brain tumor, the research team was able to narrow down from 120 potential candidates to find a signature for the cancers that had spread.
“Tackling the problem of brain metastases is one of the greatest challenges facing breast cancer researchers,” commented Abeer Shaaban, member of the National Cancer Research Institute Breast Clinical Studies Group. “This is an intriguing new angle to explore, which underlines the importance of understanding how genes are controlled as cancer grows and spreads. We’re understanding more and more about cancer’s biology and this is opening exciting new avenues of research that could lead to new tests and treatments.”