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

15th June 2021

Thanks to your kindness we can start new cancer cures around the world by funding brilliant researchers like Dr Manuel Valiente. 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.

Cancers that spread to the brain, including lung and breast cancer, can be very difficult to treat.

This is due to their location, which makes surgery challenging, and also the lack of drugs available that are able to cross over into the brain and attack the tumour.

Radiation therapy is a treatment option for tumours in the brain, but even though it has been proven to be able to penetrate the brain, it sadly doesn’t benefit every patient.

That's why research like Dr Valiente's is so important. Recently we caught up with him to talk about his project and find out more about the team's latest breakthrough.

A photo of Anne and her daughter Cathrin hugging each other tightly

Cathrin had three tumours in her brain and neither surgery nor radiotherapy worked. And that was all that was available - it's shocking how few treatments there are.

Can you explain your project?

Imagine you were born in Spain and you suddenly had to move to India. You would need to adapt to a different environment, get used to a completely different culture, and develop different ways of living. And this is really what we are doing with our research but in the context of cancer. We are studying cancer cells that have moved to a different environment. In our case, we are studying cancer cells that have spread, or metastasised, to the brain.

We are trying to understand the tricks that these cancer cells use to survive in this very different environment. And we are exploiting that biology, by trying to target those aspects to make the lives of these cancer cells in the brain very uncomfortable.

What is your latest breakthrough?

I think what we have found is really fascinating. When the cancer cells get into the brain, they activate a mechanism that makes them resistant to radiotherapy. By understanding this molecular mechanism, we found certain molecules that can block this from happening. And there is a drug out there that can do this and that gets into the brain really well and makes the cancer cells much more sensitive to radiotherapy.

We’ve also found that we can group patients according to whether they have higher or lower levels of this mechanism of resistance. This means that we can say, ok, this patient will benefit from radiotherapy without the addition of anything else, but this other patient will need to receive this additional drug that will sensitise the cancer cells to radiotherapy.

What are the next steps?

I think this is amazing really – we have not been expecting to see this - but what we have found is that we can identify patients in terms of their responses to radiotherapy just by looking into their blood. There is no therapy without side effects, that’s for sure. So, the better we can group patients to give them the best treatment possible, the more it is going to benefit the patient - which is of course what we all want.

We have 14 hospitals that are involved in a national network, and we really want to move this project funded by Worldwide Cancer Research into a bigger clinical study. We want to see whether we can improve and optimise the use of radiotherapy and personalise the use of radiotherapy.

Do you have a message for our Curestarters?

Absolutely, I think that their support is crucial! It’s always crucial but in this specific moment that we all live in, it’s even more important. For us as researchers to see that we are getting support for our research directly from people is fantastic because, in the end, we work for all of you, our work is for every person. It’s great to get the funding but also to see that our efforts, our research, is appreciated. We get the trust from them and for us, that’s very inspiring.

Just £24 will fund an hour of pioneering research like this — will you become a Curestarter today and help us keep starting new cancer cures around the world? 

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