RCSI scientists find potential way to treat secondary breast cancer

28 Jan 2022

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An existing type of drug called a PARP inhibitor could be used to treat breast cancer that has spread to the brain.

There are currently limited treatment options for patients with breast cancer that has spread to the brain, sometimes leaving them with just months to live. But scientists in Ireland have gotten one step closer to a potential new treatment using existing drugs.

By tracking the development of tumours from diagnosis to their spread to the brain, a team of researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre found a new vulnerability in the way the tumours repair their DNA.

In a study published to Nature Communications, the team found that tumours became vulnerable to an existing type of drug known as a PARP inhibitor, used to treat certain types of cancer. PARP inhibitors work by preventing cancer cells from repairing their DNA, culminating in the cells dying.

Prof Leonie Young, principal investigator of the study, said that research focused on expanding treatment options for patients whose breast cancer has spread to the brain is urgently needed to save lives.

“Our study represents an important development in getting one step closer to a potential treatment for patients with this devastating complication of breast cancer,” she said.

Deaths caused by breast cancer are often a result of treatment relapse that leads to tumours spreading to other parts of the body, known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer. This can be particularly aggressive and lethal when it spreads to the brain.

The study was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland with support from Breast Cancer Now and Science Foundation Ireland.

It was carried out as an international collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh in the US. Other RCSI researchers involved were Dr Nicola Cosgrove, Dr Damir Varešlija and Prof Arnold Hill.

“By uncovering these new vulnerabilities in DNA pathways in brain metastasis, our research opens up the possibility of novel treatment strategies for patients who previously had limited targeted therapy options,” said Varešlija.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic