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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

  • Seeking to advance precision medicine with technologies to guide treatment decisions in real time.
  • Studies are ongoing that utilize liquid biopsy technology to identify new biomarkers to monitor response to new drugs in breast cancer patients.
  • This work is paving the way to real-time assessment of patient response to treatment and will be invaluable to the success of precision medicine.

Targeted therapies offer great promise for precise treatment of breast cancer, but to date, few have succeeded in the majority of patients. Knowing which drug is right for which patient is the next step to realizing the promise of these advanced drugs. Drs. Hicks and Kuhn use a liquid biology approach to identify markers in patients’ blood that can predict how a patient is likely to respond and can serve as a red flag when she or he stops responding.

Full Research Summary

The choice of breast cancer therapy is often made on the basis of biomarkers present in the primary tumor tissue. However, cancer can change quickly, making it resistant to therapy. Therefore, tracking the cancer cells in real time while a patient is undergoing therapy is critical for knowing how and when to redirect therapy.

A liquid biopsy derived from a simple blood test provides a minimally invasive means to capture cancer cells, their DNA, and other analytes in a format that can provide actionable data to physicians before, during, and after treatment. Recently, the team led by Drs. Hicks and Kuhn discovered new mathematical ways to distinguish novel subtypes of breast cancer and to predict the probability that breast cancer cells will metastasize to specific tissues.

To make this process work in practice, new biomarkers for emerging treatments are needed. This need has become particularly acute with the advent of new immune-oncology treatments such as checkpoint inhibitors.

The collaborative effort aims to optimize and implement a comprehensive fluid biopsy for breast cancer. This year, the team is pursuing an analysis of the genetic events that accumulate during breast cancer evolution to discover biomarkers that will help guide treatment at the earliest stages of the disease.

They continue to search for therapeutic signposts through a combined analysis of both genetic markers in the DNA and the protein signals that drive the cancer cell’s ability to invade and survive in the body.


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.

Grid Reasercher Headshot - Hicks James

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Women's Cancer Research Fund Award

Area(s) of Focus