Research breakthrough finds way to improve how radiotherapy is used for people with cancer that has spread to the brain

11th April 2022

Our researchers in Spain have made a breakthrough that could help treat people with cancer that has spread to the brain more effectively. The potentially life-saving discovery has kick-started a clinical study for a blood test that could help doctors identify patients who will benefit the most from radiotherapy. The researchers have also discovered a new drug, which they say could be used to make radiotherapy work for patients who currently can't be treated because their cancer is resistant to therapy.

Dr Manuel Valiente, Worldwide Cancer Research scientist

When cancer progresses, it often spreads to the brain, where it becomes much more difficult to treat. In patients with solid tumours such as lung cancer, breast cancer or melanoma, it eventually spreads to the central nervous system in 20-40% of cases. Unfortunately, most patients pass away within 12 months of finding out this has happened.

Radiotherapy is considered the gold standard treatment for tumours that have spread to the brain from elsewhere in the body, but in many cases, these tumours are resistant to treatment. Understanding why this resistance to radiotherapy occurs and how to prevent it would help patients get access to better, more effective treatments that could improve survival of people with advanced cancers.

Researchers at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), led by Dr Manuel Valiente, have uncovered how cancer cells that have spread to the brain are able to resist the effects of radiotherapy. The study reveals a new biomarker that could be detected in a simple blood test to indicate whether a patient will respond to radiotherapy. The researchers also discovered a specific type of drug, called a RAGE inhibitor, which can enter the brain and reverse the resistance to radiotherapy. 

Combining the blood test with the new drug could help personalise radiotherapy by identifying people who would benefit from the drug prior to treatment. Clinical studies are now being started by the team to validate their findings in people.


This discovery wouldn’t be possible without Worldwide Cancer Research’s generous and supportive ‘Curestarters’ – donors who help start new cures for cancer – like a woman from Glasgow who raised over £6000 for Dr Manuel Valiente’s research project. Just two months after losing her daughter, Cathrin, to an aggressive form of breast cancer in May 2020, Anne Logue and her family walked 200km around their hometown, Paisley.

Just months after her diagnosis, Cathrin received chemotherapy, radiotherapy, had a mastectomy, and was offered a new drug as part of a clinical trial. But whilst the drug was treating the cancer in her chest, an onset of new symptoms were not side effects of the drug, but in fact three tumours in her brain, and in May 2020, Cathrin passed away.

Read Anne and Cathrin's story

“Cat was incredibly driven, intelligent, and hilariously funny. She had such a strong personality, which made it even more difficult to watch her lose that as time went on. It was three years into the journey when we knew for sure that we were out of options. Then my beautiful, bubbly and bright Cat passed away on 7th May 2020. It felt like I lost a part of myself that day; it’s been the most terrifying and lonely time of my life.

“My family and I are overjoyed to hear of the success of Dr Manuel Valiente’s research project, however, the news is bittersweet. Not only is this exactly the kind of research that could maybe have helped Cathrin, but the success is also being announced just weeks before the second anniversary of her death. But life must go on – especially in cancer research – and on behalf of all Cathrin’s family, I applaud Manuel Valientes work. It’s so important that people continue to donate to cancer research so that projects like this one can continue."

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Dr Manuel Valiente, Lead researcher, CNIO, Spain
We are very excited about the findings of this study and specifically the drug we have found. We really hope that what we have discovered will lead to a new way to personalise the use of radiotherapy that maximises the benefits for each patient.
Dr Helen Rippon, Chief Executive, Worldwide Cancer Research
Finding new ways to personalise cancer treatments is an exciting area of research that could lead to the start of new cancer cures. Once cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it is much harder to treat, and cancer that has spread to the brain presents a particularly difficult challenge. Dr Valiente’s findings show that a new diagnostic test and even a new treatment for patients with brain metastasis is on the horizon.

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Further reading

Real Life Story Cathrin and her friend Mairi sitting together and smiling at a table at a formal event

I will never have another friend like Cathrin but I take comfort from the privilege of having had her in my life

Recently we shared Anne's heartbreaking story of the loss of her beloved daughter Cathrin. Cathrin was only 38 when she passed away in May 2020, just four years after she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer that sadly spread to her brain.

08 June 2021

A photo of a mother wearing a headscarf embracing her young daughter

How our research is improving treatment for cancer that has spread to the brain

Dr Valiente and his team in Spain are currently working hard to find new ways to make radiotherapy more effective for cancers that have spread to the brain.

15 June 2021


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08 March 2022


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