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Max S. Wicha, MD
Distinguished Professor of Oncology
Director Emeritus, Comprehensive Cancer Center
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Goal: To understand the biology of breast cancer stem cells that drive tumor growth and metastasis.
Impact: There is now substantial evidence that breast cancers contain a population of cells that display "stem- like” properties. These breast cancer stem cells (CSC) are the seeds of metastasis and contribute to treatment resistance. Dr. Wicha has developed a device to capture and analyze CSC from the blood of patients with metastatic breast cancer. This innovation will not only allow him to study how CSC mediate tumor metastasis but will also provide a valuable tool to monitor patients on clinical trials designed to target breast cancer stem cells.
What’s next: Dr. Wicha will continue to validate the techniques they have developed to study breast CSCs. He will use this technology to monitor patients on clinical trials designed to target cancer stem cells in order to identify markers of response to the therapies.
Breast cancer cells begin as normal breast cells, but they acquire new properties over time that allows them to spread and become resistant to therapy. Dr. Wicha is using new technology to investigate the genomic profile—the genes that are turned on or off—of cell types within tumors to identify those that act like cancer stem cells and drive drug resistance and tumor growth.
Full Research Summary
Research area: Investigating how breast cancer cells acquire new properties over time that allow them to grow out of control and become resistant to anti-cancer therapy.
Impact: One key to improving breast cancer outcomes is to identify what cell types within tumors are driving tumor progression. Unfortunately, the biologic and molecular complexity of breast cancer makes this quite challenging. Dr. Wicha’s work on new techniques that capture and measure the expression of more than 1,000 genes in each individual tumor cell will advance the understanding of the drivers of tumor growth and spread, which could guide new therapeutic and preventive strategies.
Current investigation: Dr. Wicha is studying cancer stem-like cells (CSCs), a subset of cancer cells that are able to initiate tumors, mediate metastasis, and contribute to treatment resistance.
What he’s learned so far: He and his team have developed technologies to examine gene expression patterns of breast CSCs at single-cell resolution. This is an important advance because techniques that require hundreds or more cells average data over the entire cell population, missing key elements of CSCs.
What’s next: Dr. Wicha will use these advanced technologies to monitor patients on clinical trials designed to target CSCs—work that has the potential to more precisely select therapies and monitor treatment effectiveness, improving the outcome for women with metastatic breast cancer.
Dr. Max S. Wicha founded the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center (UMCCC) in 1987 and served as director for 27 years. Under his direction the UMCCC has established itself as a national leader. He is a leader in breast cancer research and a pioneer in the field of cancer stem cells (CSCs). According to the science citation index, he is among the most highly cited investigators in the field. His group was part of the team that first identified CSCs in human breast cancers, the first in any solid tumor. His laboratory has developed many of the techniques and assays used to study these cells and to elucidate the pathways which regulate their behavior. These pathways have provided targets for the development of drugs aimed at targeting CSCs. Dr. Wicha is co-founder of OncoMed Pharmaceuticals, a company focused on developing CSC therapeutics, which has produced five agents currently in clinical testing. He is also a clinician whose practice is focused on women with breast cancer.