Whenever cancer spreads to the brain, the prognosis is the most challenging, with most dying within months after diagnosis. Breast cancer researchers are determined to identify brain metastasis before it strikes.

Markers of risk

Dr. Vincent Cryns, a breast cancer researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently made a breakthrough in this field. His latest study identified a specific protein that could predict whether certain aggressive forms of breast cancer are likely to spread to the brain.

“This is an important finding because there are few established tumor markers that predict risk for this devastating complication,” Cryns explains. “This could be a first step in identifying breast cancer patients at high risk for brain metastasis so they could be monitored more closely or enrolled in clinical trials.”

The study involved an international team of researchers who analyzed almost 4,000 patients with breast cancer. Cryns and his colleagues found that the biomarker alpha B-crystallin was associated with the risk of developing brain metastasis in triple negative breast cancer: an aggressive form of the disease with no known targeted therapies.

"Brain metastasis occurs in 10 to 16 percent of all Stage IV breast cancer patients. Without any effective therapies, there is no cure."

Not only that, but of the 969 women with breast cancers that metastasized to new sites in the body—those whose tumors had high levels of αB-crystallin—were three-times more likely to have spread to the brain than those who tested negative.

Probing further

In a further analysis of all 4,000 cases, αB-crystallin was also linked with a significantly higher risk of death, with 36 percent of women with αB-crystallin positive cancer dying within ten years of diagnosis compared to 25 percent of women whose tumors were αB-crystallin negative.

“Metastasis to the brain and central nervous system is a challenge as many drugs do not easily cross the blood-brain-barrier,” says Marc Hurlbert, BCRF’s Chief Mission Officer. Brain metastasis occurs in 10 to 16 percent of all Stage IV breast cancer patients. Without any effective therapies, there is no cure.

While Cryns emphasizes that the results of his study need to be further validated before they can be used in the clinic, he says his laboratory is working on developing therapies to target αB-crystallin as a strategy to treat or prevent brain metastasis in breast cancer.

"This is potentially a significant finding because developing targeted drug therapies absolutely requires identifying new targets,” says Dr. Larry Norton, BCRF Scientific Director and Medical Director of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “This discovery could lead to new and effective approaches to a serious complication of breast cancer."