Gene “switches” could predict when breast cancers will spread to the brain

Nov. 10, 2014

Scientists have found a pattern of genetic “switches”—chemical marks that turn genes on or off—that are linked to breast cancer's spread to the brain, according to research presented at the National Cancer Research Institute Cancer Conference in Liverpool, UK, last week. The researchers, based at the University of Wolverhampton, studied 24 breast cancers that had spread to the brain, along with samples from the original breast tumor, and found a handful of genes with faulty switches.

Crucially, two of the genetic switches became faulty early on in the development of breast cancer, suggesting they may be an early warning signal for tumors that will spread to the brain. Scientists are now working to develop a blood test that might be able to detect these signals at an early stage, before the disease has spread.

Up to 30 percent of breast cancers will eventually spread to the brain, often many years after the first tumor was treated. Tackling secondary brain tumors with radiotherapy and surgery has limited success, with most women surviving just seven months after the brain metastasis has been diagnosed.

By comparing chemical switches, known as DNA methylation, between the original breast cancer and the secondary brain tumor, the researchers were able to narrow down from 120 potential candidates to find a “signature” for cancers that had spread. Read the study abstract.

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