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Heads of Laboratories

Elaine Fuchs, Ph.D.

Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor
Robin Chemers Neustein Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development

Research Lab Members Publications In the News

Faculty Bio

Elaine Fuchs

The largest reservoirs of adult stem cells reside in skin. They continually renew the body’s protective barrier, regenerate hair in cyclical bouts, and repair surface wounds. Dr. Fuchs studies where stem cells come from and how they make and repair tissue throughout life. She explores how stem cells communicate with immune, dermal, and other cells in their environment and how this communication malfunctions in aging and cancers.

Dr. Fuchs’ lab couples in vitro studies with classical genetics, RNAi, and CRISPR-Cas technologies in mice to study the biology of skin stem cells. Her research employs high throughput genomic analyses, live imaging, cell biology, and functional approaches to unravel the molecular pathways that determine the normal balance between stem cell maintenance and differentiation and how this goes awry in cancers. Her team is learning how stem cells establish unique chromatin landscapes and programs of gene expression and how this shifts in response to changes in their local environment. They have found that activating signals from neighboring cells instruct skin stem cells when to make hair and when to repair injuries. Conversely, inhibitory cross talk tells the stem cells when to stop making tissue and rest. This work is accelerating the development of therapeutics to enhance wound repair.

By elucidating the positive and negative signaling pathways that need to be turned on and off at the right time and place for adult skin stem cells to become activated to regenerate tissue, her group began to employ genetic methods to investigate what happens when these signals are deregulated. They learned cancer cells hijack the basic mechanisms that enable stem cells to replenish dying cells and to repair wounds.

A major focus is on squamous cell carcinomas, among the most common and life threatening of human cancers worldwide. The group first used high throughput genomics to delineate the features of so-called “cancer stem cells.” They then devised technology that permits high throughput functional screens for oncogenes and tumor suppressors in mice. By identifying mutations that selectively fuel cancer growth and showing that these alterations also occur in related human cancers, Dr. Fuchs hopes her research will lead to new therapeutics that target cancer stem cells without affecting tissue stem cells.

By studying early steps in malignancy, the group discovered that invading blood vessels and associated inflammatory cells transmit aberrant signals. Nearby tumor-initiating cells respond by reducing proliferation, invading the stroma, and resisting chemotherapy. Further away, tumor stem cells grow faster but show greater sensitivity to drugs. This leads to differences in the behavior of stem cells within the developing tumor arising from heterogeneity in the tumor microenvironment rather than variations in genetic mutations.

How do these stromal aberrations affect the transcriptional and epigenetic programs of stem cells during tumor progression? How do these changes confer drug resistance and how do they affect epithelial polarity, adhesion, and invasiveness within the tumor? Does the epigenetic heterogeneity in tumor stem cells that arises from local variations in the stroma contribute to subsequent genetic heterogeneity within cancers? What is the importance of immune cell cross-talk with stem cells in wound repair versus cancer? As the group answers these questions experimentally, they will continue to uncover new links to understanding the process of wound repair, as well as tumor progression and metastasis.


Dr. Fuchs received her B.S. in chemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1972 and her Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1977 from Princeton University. She was a postdoc at MIT and was the Amgen Professor of Basic Sciences at the University of Chicago from 1980 to 2002, when she joined Rockefeller. She has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1988. 

Dr. Fuchs has received the 2015 E.B. Wilson Medal, 2014 Pezcoller Foundation Award for Cancer Research, 2013 Pasarow Award for Cancer Research, 2013 Kligman-Frost Leadership Award, 2013 American Skin Association Lifetime Achievement Award, 2012 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, 2011 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, 2011 Passano Prize, 2011 Madison Medal, 2010 L’Oréal-UNESCO Award in the Life Sciences, 2010 Charlotte Friend Award from the American Association for Cancer Research, 2009 National Medal of Science, 2006 Bering Award, 2006 Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Award for Scientific Excellence, 2004 Dickson Prize in Medicine, 2003 Novartis/Drew Award in Biomedical Research, 2002 Cartwright Award from Columbia University and the 1997 Women in Cell Biology Senior Women’s Career Achievement Award. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She was named one of the Nation’s Outstanding Scientists by the White House in 1985 and holds honorary doctorates from the University of Illinois and the Mount Sinai and New York University Schools of Medicine.

Dr. Fuchs is a faculty member in the David Rockefeller Graduate Program and the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program.

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