Scientists have discovered a pattern of genetic ‘switches’, which are chemical marks which turn genes on or off, which are linked to the spread of breast cancer to the brain.
The researchers from the University of Wolverhampton undertook studies of 24 breast cancers which had spread to the brain, as well as samples taken from the original brain tumour, and discovered a handful of genes which have faulty switches.
Two of the switches picked up a fault fairly early during the development of breast cancer. This suggests that they may be an early cautioning signal for tumours which may spread to the brain. The scientists are currently working on the development of a blood test which may be able to detect these signals prior to the spread of the disease.
Up to 30% of breast cancers eventually spread to the brain. This may happen many years after the treatment of the first tumour. Treatment of secondary brain tumours with surgery and radiotherapy has reduced success, with most patients surviving only seven months after the diagnosis of the brain metastasis.
Undertaking the comparison between chemical switches, referred to as DN A methylation, between the original breast cancer and the secondary brain tumour, allowed the researchers to find a ‘signature’ for cancers which had spread from 120 possible candidates.
The author of the study, from the University of Wolverhampton, Dr Mark Morris, said that the number of women who suffer from breast cancer which has spread to the brain is rising each year. He said that though they are aware of the genetic changes linked to breast cancer, they do not know enough about why it spreads to the brain.
He added that being able to identify the genes that switch on or off in breast cancer prior to spreading to the brain, they may be able to develop a blood test which will allow them to spot the change. Their findings could be used as a commencing point for the development of treatments which may prevent the spread of the disease.
Each year, around 50000 females receive breast cancer diagnoses in the UK and approximately 11600 of them die from the disease.
A member of the NCRI Breast Clinical Studies Group, Dr Abeer Shaaban said the tackling of brain metastases is one of the biggest challenges breast cancer researchers face. The results of this new study is an interesting new angle to look at as it focuses on the importance of gaining understanding as to how the genes are controlled during the growth and spread of cancer. He said more understanding about cancer’s biology is being gained and it opens up new methods of research which could ultimately result in new tests and treatment options.
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