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Max S. Wicha, MD

Distinguished Professor of Oncology
Madeline & Sidney Forbes Professor of Oncology
Director, Forbes Institute for Cancer Discovery
Director Emeritus, Rogel Cancer Center
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Current Research

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. Wicha received his M.D. degree from Stanford University School of Medicine in 1974, trained in Internal medicine at the University of Chicago and in Medical Oncology at the NIH. His scientific career has focused on the biology and treatment of breast cancer. He has been a major leader in the science of cancer stem cells. His group was part of the team that first identified breast cancer stem cells, the first such cells identified in solid tumors. His laboratory has identified a number of cancer stem cell markers and developed in vitro and mouse models to isolate and characterize these cells, models which have been widely utilized in the field. His group has subsequently elucidated a number of intrinsic and extrinsic pathways which regulate stem cell self-renewal and cell fate decisions. This work has directly led to development of several clinical trials aimed at targeting breast cancer stem cells. Dr. Wicha is also the founding director of the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center, a position he held for 27 years. Under his leadership, the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center established itself as one of the nation’s premier cancer centers. In 2015, Dr. Wicha stepped down as the Cancer Center Director enabling him to devote his full efforts to cancer stem cell research. He now holds the Madeline and Sidney Forbes Professor of Oncology Chair, and serves as Director of the Forbes Institute for Cancer Discovery. He was also recently appointed by President Obama to the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB). This board advises the NCI Director and Secretary of Health on matters related to cancer research and health policy.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Wicha M

BCRF Investigator Since


Area(s) of Focus