Michael Wigler, PhD

Michael Wigler, PhD

If not for BCRF/PFP, we could not have developed the molecular tools and informatics that have allowed us to attack the problem of host cell to cancer interactions, which may hold clues to future treatments.

Professor, Cancer Genetics
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Cold Spring Harbor, New York

Area of Focus:  Tumor Biology

2018-2019 PROJECT

The Play for P.I.N.K./The Estée Lauder Companies’ Breast Cancer Campaign Award

Current Research:

  • Seeking to characterize the interaction between normal (host) cells and tumor cells that will inform new strategies to prevent or treat breast cancer.
  • Sophisticated cell sorting and DNA sequencing technologies are employed to understand how non-tumor cells in the tumor environment influence tumor behavior.
  • These studies will help direct new drug development for the prevention and treatment of breast cancer.

Tumors develop within normal tissue, and tumor cells interact with other non-cancer cells and host factors – factors unique to each patient. This microenvironment influences the growth of the tumor as well as its response to anti-cancer therapies. Dr. Wigler is conducting studies to identify the types and functional states of cells in “neighborhoods” around the tumor. He aims to understand the complex interactions between the host’s normal cells and the cancer cells to identify ways to achieve the best outcome for the patient.

Full Research Summary:

Tumors cells interact with non-cancerous cells in the patient (“the host”) that influence the response to treatment and tumor behavior. With technology developed by Dr. Wigler in collaboration with BCRF colleague James Hicks, researchers can now study breast cancer at the single-cell level, setting the stage for the development of new diagnostic tools that will aid in therapeutic management of the disease.

Since developing the first single-cell genomic methods in 2011, Dr. Wigler has focused his BCRF-supported research on the dual goals of improving the technology and applying it to take breast cancer therapy to a new level of precision and effectiveness.

In the coming year, he will continue to decipher the interactions between cancer cells and the host microenvironment to better understand how this interplay influences tumor cell death, survival, and response to treatment. His team integrates molecular and computational techniques to examine the DNA and RNA in single cells to gain new insight into how host cells interact with the cancer cells.

Dr. Wigler believes that these studies will demonstrate that the tumor microenvironment both fights and assists the cancer in its growth and spread, and that study findings will help direct the development of new generations of targeted therapies.


Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory scientist Michael Wigler, PhD, in collaboration with James Hicks, PhD, is analyzing the genomes of women with breast cancer in research aimed at eliminating “trial-and-error” approaches to therapy. This work is leading to diagnostic tests capable of distinguishing cancers likely to spread and should receive aggressive treatment from those that are benign and can be left untreated. In this effort, Drs. Wigler and Hicks are using powerful technologies that they developed to analyze genomic and epigenetic changes in thousands of breast cancers and have identified three distinct categories of breast cancer DNA profiles associated with different outcomes for patients. Their research has provided important information about which patients are most likely to benefit from treatment with specific drugs, such as taxol and Herceptin®. Drs. Wigler and Hicks have also developed a sensitive technology called single nucleus sequencing (SNS) that can identify genetic changes in very small samples, which can be used to follow genetic changes as tumors progress and to identify specific changes that can predict which tumors are likely to metastasize. The group is continuing to make technological improvements to make it affordable and feasible for SNS to be used as a monitoring tool for early detection of cancer cells in the blood, and to direct therapy based on the genetic makeup of those circulating cancer cells.