A study co-led by scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, in collaboration with UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher Charles M. Perou found that women whose breast cancer had begun to spread and who tested positive in the αB-crystallin test were three times more likely to have disease that spread to the brain than those who tested negative.

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Charles M. Perou, PhD, is a UNC Lineberger member and the May Goldman Shaw Distinguished Professor of Molecular Oncology.

Researchers have identified a genetic marker that could be used to help predict whether breast cancer is likely to spread to the brain.

An analysis of almost 4,000 patients with breast cancer found that testing for high activity in a particular gene called alpha beta (αB)-crystallin could pick out women who were at greater risk of developing secondary brain tumors compared to women who tested negative.

The study was co-led by scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, in collaboration with a researcher from the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. The study found that women whose breast cancer had begun to spread and who tested positive in the αB-crystallin test were three times more likely to have disease that spread to the brain than those who tested negative.

Charles M. Perou, PhD, a UNC Lineberger member and the May Goldman Shaw Distinguished Professor of Molecular Oncology, was a co-author on the study. Perou said the researchers have been studying alpha beta-crystallin for years, and that previous studies have linked the gene’s expression to worse outcome in patients with breast cancer brain metastasis.

“This most recent finding could be used to indicate increased vigilance in monitoring of whether there is disease in the brain,” Perou said of the study, which was published in the journal npj Breast Cancer. The study was funded by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the U.S. National Cancer Institute, Cancer Research UK and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

The researchers analyzed 969 breast cancer tumors which ultimately spread, or metastasized, to new sites in the body, from a database of almost 4,000 breast cancers from the British Columbia Cancer Agency. Of those tumors,141 had spread first to the brain.

Some 127 scored positive for αB-crystallin, and 842 negative – with those testing positive three times more likely to have spread first to the brain.

“Spread of breast cancer to the brain is unfortunately very dangerous, and usually leads to death within months, “said study co-leader Maggie Cheang, MD, senior staff scientist at The Institute of Cancer Research, London. “It’s important to find new ways to identify women who are most at risk of their cancer spreading to the brain, so that doctors can work out which women might need more intensive or new treatments to try to keep their cancer at bay for longer.

Cheang said this will need further development before it’s ready for clinical application.

“The test needs further development before it will be ready for routine clinical use, but ultimately the first use of this type of test could be to identify opportunities for women with advanced specific types of breast cancer – such as triple negative – to enter clinical trials of new treatments.”