July 20, 2015 | by Denise Heady
For the past four years, neurosurgeon and scientist Rahul Jandial, M.D., Ph.D., has been studying how breast cancer cells spread, or metastasize, to the brain, where they become life-threatening tumors. Known as secondary brain tumors, these cancers have become increasingly common as treatment advances have enabled more women to survive their primary cancer.
Jandial’s goal is to find out how to find more effective treatments for these tumors, which eventually take the lives of thousands of women in the U.S. each year.
His expertise in the field recently helped him obtain a prestigious $700,000 grant from the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP), part of the Medical Research Programs directed by the U.S. Congress.
Jandial, assistant professor in the Division of Neurosurgery at City of Hope, received what’s officially known as the Breakthrough Award, which will support his research to further understand why women with HER2-positive breast cancer have higher rates of brain metastases than women with other breast cancer subtypes.
The award highlights just how crucial Jandial’s work is. Approximately 40 percent of all women with HER2-positive breast cancer will develop brain metastases.
“HER2-positive breast cancer has an advantage within the typically resilient brain environment,” Jandial said. “We believe that there may be cooperation between cancer signaling and normal brain signaling.”
Such cooperation would explain why metastases can take root in the brain.
Metastases are responsible for 90 percent of all cancer deaths, and patients diagnosed with brain metastases only have a 20 percent chance of surviving a year after diagnosis.
Current treatments for brain metastases are limited, poorly effective and have a poor prognosis.
Overcoming the challenges
Jandial and other City of Hope researchers have already discovered that breast cancer cells exhibit the characteristics of brain cells in order to better utilize available energy sources.
Now, with the help of the Breast Cancer Research Program grant, Jandial will be able to investigate even more deeply the ability of HER2-positive cancer cells to spread and grow in the brain.
“For me, it’s the patient narratives that drive and guide scientific investigation,” said Jandial. “By understanding why some cancer subtypes prefer the brain environment, we may be able to find an approach that works against all brain metastases.”
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