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James Hicks, PhD

University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California

Titles and Affiliations

Professor of Research in Biological Sciences
Deputy Director, Convergent Science Institute in Cancer
USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience

Research area

Applying blood biopsy technology to understand cancer progression and find predictive markers that indicate how cancer will react to treatment.


Liquid biopsy, a blood test that detects cancer cells and other tumor-associated factors, is a promising, less-invasive alternative to tumor biopsy. In addition to more readily providing information about a patients’ cancer, its minimally invasive nature means several samples can be taken over time. This could allow for clinicians to have real-time data on a tumor’s response to therapy, informing treatment decisions and potentially revolutionizing the way cancer is managed. Liquid biopsies are not currently available for widespread clinical applications, but Drs. Hicks and Kuhn, and their teams are pushing this new technology to expand the scope of what information can be derived from patient blood and exploring its potential in early detection as well as predicting cancer progression and recurrence.

Progress Thus Far

Using a combination of data science, biotechnology, and mathematical tools, the teams explore an array of circulating cells thought to influence cancer evolution and metastatic progression – not just tumor cells, but immune cells and other tumor-responsive cells not previously studied by liquid biopsy. Through this work, Drs. Hicks, Kuhn, and their teams dramatically improved the methodology for liquid biopsies, leading to the creation of an ‘Atlas’ of the 16-plus distinct cell types that uniquely populate the blood of people with breast cancer and are not found in healthy individuals. Recently, they have used their ability to profile rare cell types in blood and utilized advanced machine learning mathematics to accurately distinguish early-stage and late-stage cancer from each other and from normal blood.

What’s next

The teams will share the tools they used to generate the Atlas with ongoing clinical trials, so that they can test their tools’ ability to identify clinically predictive biomarkers. Motivated by their recent discovery, they are pursuing further investigations to determine whether a simple blood draw could enhance or even replace mammography in routine screening for breast cancer before any symptoms emerge.


Dr. James 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


Peter Kuhn, PhD

University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California