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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.

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. In this way, he hopes to find answers to the perplexing questions of drug resistance and metastasis.

Recent research has shown that a small fraction of breast cancer cells display stem cell-like properties including self-renewal (making more of themselves), drug resistance, and metastasis– the ability to colonize and form tumors in different tissues.

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.

They will extend this work in patient-derived samples that will include tumor cells and surrounding cells (fibroblasts, endothelial, and immune cells), as well as rare cell populations such as circulating tumor cells and  tumor cell clusters.

These experiments will provide an unprecedented dataset of cancer stem cells, differentiated tumor cells, and microenvironmental cell populations to begin to understand the complex pathway interactions between the cells that drive tumor growth and disease. 


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.

BCRF Investigator Since


Area(s) of Focus