Neuroscientist looking at screen analysing brain scan

A new understanding of how breast cancer spreads to the brain

  • Research

If cancer spreads from the primary site to different organs in the body, it can become harder to treat and harder to live with. Why do so many cancers move to new sites as they advance? And what can we do about it?

New research from RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre identified key molecular changes that drive the spread of breast cancer to the brain, and identified potential new approaches to treating advanced breast cancer in the future.

Globally, one in eight women will likely develop breast cancer during her life, and around 3,700 new cases are diagnosed each year in Ireland alone.

In up to 30% of people with advanced breast cancer, the primary tumour in the breast spreads to the brain to form secondary tumours called metastases. There are limited drug treatment options for patients in whom the cancer has spread to the brain, and the prognosis is not good. 

A natural process

To find out more about the mechanisms that underpin cancer’s spread, the new RCSI study examined breast cancer cells for changes in RNA, a type of molecule that helps to control how genes work. The researchers particularly paid attention to patterns of methylation in RNA, a natural process that affects the way RNA works. 

Their analysis, published in the journal Cancer Communications, showed that RNA methylation plays an essential role in enabling breast cancer tumours to evolve and spread to the brain.

By mapping the landscape of RNA methylation in cancer cells, the researchers were able to highlight its clinical significance for patients with breast cancer.

Future benefits

This discovery opens up new ways of understanding what is going on in breast cancer cells as they develop, change and move from their primary site to other parts of the body.

The research also showed that an already-existing class of drugs called FTO inhibitors may have future benefit for treating patients with advanced breast cancer that has spread to the brain.

The study – under the leadership of Principal Investigator Professor Leonie Young – was a collaboration between the Endocrine Oncology Research Group at RCSI’s Department of Surgery and Ben May Department for Cancer Research at the University of Chicago, and was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, Breast Cancer NOW and the Irish Research Council.

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.