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James Hicks, PhD
Professor of Research in Biological Sciences,
Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California
Goal: To advance precision medicine with technologies to guide treatment decisions in real time.
Impact: Drs. Kuhn and Hicks are using liquid biopsy—a non-invasive method to isolate cancer cells in a patient’s blood—to identify biomarkers that could be used to monitor response to drugs in breast cancer patients. If successful, this test would allow doctors to quickly make changes to a patient’s treatment plan if a therapy isn’t working, thereby, leading to improved outcomes for patients with breast and other cancers.
What’s next: The team will participate in a new round of clinical studies that stem from their discovery that liquid biopsy can be used to guide treatment strategy years into the treatment sequence.
A liquid biopsy is a blood-based, minimally invasive test commonly used in research that may one day have a significant impact on how breast cancer is managed. Drs. Kuhn and Hicks are evaluating the accuracy of this technique in monitoring patient response to anti-cancer therapy, which will allow for prompt changes in treatment if the current drug isn’t working.
Full Research Summary
Research area: Developing tools that will allow physicians to easily monitor breast cancer patients’ response to treatment so patients can be switched to a new therapy when their current one stops working.
Impact: Biomarkers are used to help determine the best therapy for each patient. However, cancer cells can change quickly and become resistant to treatment. Doctors currently monitor these changes via tumor biopsy or imaging. These approaches are typically done after the patient has completed their therapy to monitor tumor response. Liquid biopsy—a blood test that captures cancer cells and other tumor factors—is a promising, less invasive alternative to tumor testing that would provide faster, more detailed results. Drs. Kuhn and Hicks are using a liquid biopsy approach to identify biomarkers in the blood of patients to track response to treatment and, if necessary, allow adjustments to be made promptly.
Current investigation: Using a combination of data science, biotechnology, bioengineering, and mathematical tools, the team has been exploring how cancer evolves in order to identify biomarkers in the blood that will help guide treatment at the earliest stages of breast cancer.
What they’ve learned so far: Drs. Kuhn and Hicks completed four studies in in which their liquid biopsy technology was applied to blood samples from patients participating in clinical trials. The data has demonstrated that liquid biopsy could also be used to guide treatment decisions late into the course of treatment.
What’s next: The team will participate in a new round of clinical studies related to follow up on these observations. This work will provide new insights into how breast cancer changes during the course of treatment.
Dr. Hicks is a molecular geneticist using genomics to study the initiation and progression of cancer in human patients with the goal of developing clinical assays for improving the treatment of the disease. His current studies expand on his previous work on the development of single cell genomic analysis in two important areas: first, to define the degree and mechanisms of cancer heterogeneity and response to therapy in breast and other solid tumors; and second, to apply single cell sequencing technology to fluid biopsies, procedures that can identify cancer cells in blood, bone marrow or even urine. These minimally invasive procedures provide the means to monitor cancer treatment sequentially during treatment is underway, to understand what changes take place in response to treatment and to alter treatment when necessary, a crucial component of the next generation of precision oncology.
Dr. Hicks has recently joined the newly formed Institute for Convergent Science at the University of Southern California in 2015 and will split his appointment between USC and Cold Spring Harbor for the next academic year. His career has been split between academics and the biotechnology industry, co-founding several successful companies, and co-authoring over 100 research publications and 8 patent applications.
Dr. Hicks serves on the Board of Directors of one public company (NASDAQ: BBSI) and is a Co-founder and Director of two privately held companies. He is also a scientific advisor to several early stage biotechnology companies.