Distinguished Professor of Oncology
Director Emeritus, Comprehensive Cancer Center
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Breast cancer is a complex disease. This heterogeneity 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 tumor 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 performing single-cell gene expression analysis to determine the similarities and differences between the different cell types. These studies will help them to identify the types of cells and the gene pathways that are potentially driving drug resistance and tumor progression. The researchers will also conduct laboratory experiments to study how other non-cancerous cells in the tissue microenvironment (fibroblasts, endothelial cells, etc.) may promote the population of cancer stem cells, important drivers in tumor progression.
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.