WALK the Walk, the Woking-based breast cancer charity, has given £550,000 towards finding ways to stop the disease spreading to the brain, where it becomes incurable.

The money is part of the £660,000 Walk the Walk Fellowship awarded by the charity Breast Cancer Now to Dr Damir Varešlija, a scientist at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dublin.

The study is investigating how gene switches in breast cancer cells might make the disease more likely to spread to the brain and to find ways to stop this happening.

It is estimated that up to 30% of patients with secondary breast cancer develop tumours in their brain, which can lead to seizures, headaches, vomiting and uncoordinated movement.

Treatment options are limited as the brain has a unique barrier that protects it against anything harmful and prevents many targeted treatments and chemotherapy from reaching it.

Dr Varešlija and his team hope to offer targets for new drugs and establish whether currently available medicine might be a safe and viable option. If the gene switches can be reversed, this may help to prevent secondary breast cancer from developing in the brain.

Dr Varešlija said: “I am thrilled and honoured to be awarded the Walk the Walk Fellowship.

“My team and I will be doing our absolute best to advance our understanding of what genes trick the brain into being a willing host for escaped breast cancer cells.

“This is an area of unmet clinical need and we are delighted that dedicated research will be invested into potentially developing our findings into treatments for the benefit of patients with brain metastatic breast cancer.”

Nina Barough, the founder and chief executive of Walk the Walk, said: “Walk the Walk has been investing funds for essential research by Breast Cancer Now for many years, so to be funding our own fellowship, researching something we feel is vitally important for the advancement of cancer treatments, is an absolutely wonderful place to be.

“It feels particularly special to be doing this, at a time when cancer research, diagnosis and treatment has been really impacted by COVID.

“Amidst such a catastrophic situation, there is a little bud of hope, as Dr Varešlija is working fully on this project.

“The research Walk the Walk has funded previously has contributed to phenomenal leaps and bounds in terms of better understanding primary breast cancer, so that it can be treated more effectively if it’s found early enough.

“Unfortunately, that isn’t the same for secondary cancers. For the last few years, it has been a passion of mine to fund research in this area; to try and find choices for those with secondary cancers and to prevent it being the death sentence that it currently is.

“I really hope that in five years’ time, at the end of this fellowship, that the current situation regarding secondaries will have moved on, and we will have a much better understanding of why breast cancer spreads to the brain.

“We can make a difference and that’s what we’re here to do.”

Dr Simon Vincent, from Breast Cancer Now, said: “With around 11,500 women still dying from breast cancer each year in the UK, research like this is vital to us finding new ways to prevent breast cancer from spreading and to treat it effectively when it does.

“We are delighted to award this fellowship in collaboration with Walk the Walk, to help address a huge area of unmet need in breast cancer research that could help stop people dying from this disease.”

For more information, visit https://walkthewalk.org/. The Breast Cancer Now free helpline is 0808 800 6000.