Cancer of the brain due to metastasis (spread from a distant primary cancer) is often an insidious diagnosis that is not caught until very late into the course of the disease. Unfortunately, this leads to poor prognosis and early death. Much of the issue is with screening potential patients. While there are tests available to take an image of the brain, it is not done until there is a reason to do so, like if the patient is experiencing severe headaches or has had recent head trauma. This is one of the reasons why brain cancer has a high mortality rate.
It would be ideal to have a simple test that can be done to screen for potential cancers and this is exactly the path that researchers at Houston Methodist Research Institute aim to achieve. They are creating a blood test that will help identify breast cancer patients who are at an increased risk for developing brain metastasis, as well as monitoring the response to therapy in real time.
While only a proof of concept has been presented, being able to detect a distinct group of tumor cells (CTCs) associated with the brain is crucial. It helps provide the cancer research community new insight on how cancer spreads and thrives in breast cancer patients.
Approximately 20 percent of breast cancer patients will develop brain metastasis over their lifetime. Brain cancer is considered the number one killer within the first 10 years of diagnosis.
“Our research confirmed that CTCs in breast cancer brain metastases are distinct from other circulating tumor cells. Moreover, unlocking the mystery of how these seeds of metastatic disease survive and thrive over a period of years, sometimes decades is an enigma in cancer. Now we can take this information and develop a more sensitive screening tool to detect metastatic cancer in the blood, possibly even before metastasis is radiologically detectable by MRI,” said Dario Marchetti, Ph.D., a senior author and director of the Biomarker Research Program at Houston Methodist Research Institute.
This new method of testing is the first in this field to provide a comprehensive report on patient-derived circulating tumor cells at the level of gene expression. With this new information, medical experts can get a better picture of the how cancer spreads throughout the body.
Building on previously done research, breast cancer cells that remain dormant in bone marrow or other organs were identified in the form of four distinct subsets. Sometimes decades would go by without these cells being located, possibly leading to cancer reactivation.
Previously tools used for detecting cancer made it nearly impossible to detect these hidden cancer cells.
As it currently stands, the research team are focused on expanding their patient study population and developing two kinds of non-invasive liquid biopsies to easily detect brain metastasis before it is seen on traditional imaging studies.