Generally speaking, women with breast cancer are surviving longer and having better outcomes. Although 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime, the vast majority will beat the disease. However, 10% to 15% of those women may see their cancer spread to another part of their body.

Research led by Paul Lockman, PhD, BSN, the inaugural Douglas D. Glover Chair of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the West Virginia University School of Pharmacy and associate director for translational research at the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center in Morgantown, seeks to better understand why and how breast cancer can spread to the brain with the goal of developing a way to reduce the risk of this phenomenon.

“Unfortunately, the rate of secondary breast tumors in the brain is now threefold higher than it was 10 years ago,” Lockman said. “Once a woman has a brain tumor coming from the breast, we have few effective therapies.”

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Chemotherapy drugs used to treat the secondary breast cancer that spreads to the brain have a difficult time targeting the cancer due to the blood-brain barrier, Lockman said.

He and his team created a new advanced microscopy method to identify and count the number of single breast cancer cells that enter into the brain in a preclinical model. This study was published in Cancer Prevention Research (2015; doi:10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-14-0225).

“Using this method, we demonstrated that by reducing some key inflammatory proteins in the body and in the cancer cell, we can decrease breast cancer cell invasion into the brain by 80%,” Lockman said.

The proteins were silenced or turned off through an inhibitor that interfered with the mechanism used by the cell to make certain proteins. Lockman believes there may be available drugs that could produce the same effect in women whose breast cancer has spread to their brains. His research is now focused on identifying those drugs and testing them.

“If we are successful, the next step will be a clinical trial,” Lockman said. “We want to do more than just treat women diagnosed with breast cancer; we want to prevent their cancer from spreading.”