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Max S. Wicha, MD

Distinguished Professor of Oncology
Director Emeritus, Comprehensive Cancer Center
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Current Research

  • Seeking to understand the complex interactions between tumor cells and normal cells that drive tumor growth and metastasis.
  • Sophisticated technologies and model systems are employed to study single cells to gain insight into how tumors grow and spread.
  • These studies will greatly advance our understanding of the drivers of tumor growth and expansion that can guide new therapeutic and preventive strategies.

Breast cancer cells began as normal breast cells. Over time, they acquire new properties that allow them to grow out of control and become resistant to anti-cancer therapy. By studying normal processes, we can learn what goes wrong during cancer development and how to stop it. Dr. Wicha is conducting studies to understand the genomic profile–the genes that are turned on or off–in different cells in the normal tissue to identify the cell types that are driving drug resistance and tumor growth.

Full Research Summary

The biologic and molecular complexity of breast cancer presents significant challenges in its clinical management and in achieving successful outcomes. One key to improving outcomes is to know what cell types within the tumors are driving tumor progression so that therapies can be developed to target these specific cells.

Dr. Wicha is conducting studies to characterize the gene expression profiles of cell subpopulations within the breast to better understand the complex make-up of tumors in comparison to normal breast tissue. 

At the apex of this hierarchy are cancer stem like cells (CSC’s) that are able to initiate tumors, mediate metastasis and contribute to treatment resistance. Breast CSC’s are highly plastic, enabling them to rapidly adapt to changing conditions in the tumor microenvironment.

Dr. Wicha’s team is using a microfluidic platform to isolate the cell populations from normal breast tissue and breast tumors and analyzing gene expression in individual cells to determine the similarities and differences between the different cell types. They have analyzed data from more than 10,000 single cells across a variety of breast cancer cell lines.

In the coming year they will use this approach to monitor response to treatment in patients on clinical trials designed to target CSC’s. This work 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.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Wicha M

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Estée Lauder Companies' Employee Fundraising Award

Area(s) of Focus