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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 novel technologies to analyze CSC from the blood of patients with metastatic breast cancer. This innovation will not only allow him to study how CSCs 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 and his team will continue to validate the techniques they have developed to study breast CSCs. Furthermore, they will use this technology to examine the role of CSCs in tumor dormancy and recurrence and identify markers of response to CSC-targeted therapies. 

Breast cancer cells begin as normal breast cells, but they acquire new properties over time that allow them to spread and become resistant to therapy. Dr. Wicha is probing 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 can be targeted to prevent drug resistance, tumor growth or tumor dormancy.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Investigating how breast cancer cells acquire new properties over time that allow them to grow out of control, develop resistance, and metastasize.

Impact: The tumor microenvironment is composed of complex communities of cells including cancer stem cells—the cells responsible for driving drug resistance, cancer cell dormancy and  metastasis. Dr. Wicha and his team have developed technologies to examine gene expression patterns of breast CSCs at single cell resolution. In the coming year, Dr. Wicha will expand his studies to determine how breast CSCs contribute to tumor dormancy and breast cancer relapse. He hopes these studies will lead to novel approaches that specifically target the metabolism of CSCs and reduce deaths due to breast cancer.

Current investigation: Utilizing single cell technologies to elucidate the role of breast CSCs in mediating tumor dormancy and relapse as well as developing strategies to therapeutically target these cells by exploiting their metabolic vulnerabilities. 

What he’s learned so far: Dr. Wicha’s team is utilizing novel technologies to examine gene expression patterns of rare single cell populations such as circulating tumor cells (CTCs). They have demonstrated that CTCs expressed markers of CSCs. 

What’s next: Dr. Wicha and his colleagues will continue to study CSCs and their role in tumor dormancy and breast cancer recurrence. The results of their studies will help to develop strategies to target the metabolic vulnerabilities of CSCs and ultimately, reduced breast cancer deaths


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