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James Hicks, PhD

Professor of Research in Biological Sciences,
Bridge Institute
Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California

Current Research

Goal: To advance precision medicine with technologies to inform research and clinical treatment.

Impact: Drs. Hicks and Kuhn are using liquid biopsy—a non-invasive method to analyze biomarkers in a patient’s blood—to gain a comprehensive understanding of cancer in individual patients. If successful, clinicians will have real-time data to inform decisions throughout the entire course of treatment. 

What’s next: The team will use new tools to analyze an array of cells and molecules in the blood to understand what causes relapse and metastasis. 

A liquid biopsy is a blood-based, minimally invasive test that promises to have a significant impact on how breast cancer is managed. Drs. Hicks and Kuhn are probing the breadth of information that can be obtained through liquid biopsy.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Developing tools that will allow physicians to monitor breast cancer patients’ disease and response to treatment. 

Impact: Liquid biopsy—a blood test that captures cancer cells and other tumor factors—is a promising, less invasive alternative to tumor biopsy and could provide faster, more comprehensive information about individual patients’ cancer. Drs. Hicks and Kuhn are expanding the scope of what can be detected by liquid biopsy and exploring its potential in understanding the full scope of the disease, including metastasis and causes of relapse. 

Current investigation: Using a combination of data science, biotechnology, bioengineering, and mathematical tools, the team has been exploring an array of cells in the blood of breast cancer patients that have never been studied before. They can now see beyond just tumor cells to previously hidden cells from supporting tissue within tumors, called the tumor microenvironment. These cells are thought to be a prime influence on the evolution and process of metastasis.

What they’ve learned so far: Drs. Hicks and Kuhn have dramatically improved the methodology for liquid biopsies, expanding the capacity for detecting the number and types of cells by 10-fold compared to earlies technologies. The team has taken this information and established an atlas of circulating cells in breast cancer patients participating in clinical trials.

What’s next: The team will continue constructing a comprehensive liquid biopsy platform, expand the number of breast cancer cases analyzed by their tools in clinical trials, and build the Atlas of Breast Cancer Circulating Cell Types.


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.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Women's Cancer Research Fund Award