RCSI scientist awarded £660,000 to further breast cancer research

8 Oct 2020

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It is hoped that the research into gene switches in breast cancer cells could lead to treatments that make the disease less likely to spread to the brain.

Dublin-based scientist Dr Damir Varešlija ha been awarded a fellowship grant of more than £660,000 to further his research into breast cancer cells.

Varešlija, who is based at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), will investigate how gene switches in breast cancer cells may make the disease more likely to spread to the brain and potentially find new ways to stop this from happening.

The five-year fellowship has been awarded to Varešlija by UK charity Breast Cancer Now, with the funding coming primarily from the breast cancer charity Walk the Walk.

It is hoped that his investigation could reveal new treatments that would improve the quality of life and extend the lives of people living with secondary breast cancer in the brain.

Breast cancer research

According to Breast Cancer Now, an estimated 15 to 30pc of patients with secondary breast cancer develop tumours in their brain, which can cause seizures, headaches, vomiting and uncoordinated movement.

Treatment options are currently limited as the brain has a unique barrier, known as the blood-brain barrier, that protects it against anything harmful while inadvertently preventing many targeted treatments and chemotherapy from reaching it.

Varešlija and his team at RCSI are working to identify and understand the different gene switches that help breast cancer spread to the brain. This could offer targets for new drugs or establish whether currently available drugs may be a safe or viable option.

Additionally, if these switches can be reversed, this may help to prevent secondary breast cancer from developing in the brain.

With the funding, researchers will compare patient samples from both breast tumours and breast cancer tumours from the brain to identify which gene switches might be responsible for causing and facilitating the spread of breast cancer.

“My team and I will be doing our absolute best to advance our understanding of what genes trick the brain into being a willing host for escaped breast cancer cells,” Varešlija commented.

“This is an area of unmet clinical need and we are delighted that dedicated research will be invested into potentially developing our findings into treatments for the benefit of patients with brain metastatic breast cancer.”

Identifying gene switches

The RCSI research team will be treating breast cancer cells grown in the lab with molecules that target gene switches and will take the top three successful molecules to test on breast cancer cells from brain tumours donated by people whose breast cancer has spread.

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

Dr Simon Vincent, director of research, support and influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said: “Dr Varešlija’s research could offer invaluable insight about the mechanisms that cause breast cancer to spread to the brain, and potentially offer a way to stop this from happening.

“Research like this is vital to us finding new ways to prevent breast cancer from spreading and to treat it effectively when it does.”

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic