Michael Metzger, PhD

Assistant Investigator

Lab Focus

Cancer Evolution

Cancer Genomics

Transmissible Cancer


The Metzger Lab investigates rare contagious cancers in nature in order to understand how cancers evolve and to use that information to learn new ways to block cancer in humans. Cancers are not normally contagious, but in a few cases in the wild, cancer cells themselves will actually jump from one animal to the next. 

This PNRI lab has found these transmissible cancers in clams, cockles, and other bivalves, and found they can spread within a population in the wild and can even travel around the world. The Metzger Lab seeks to understand the evolution of these cancers and understand how the natural populations of clams have evolved to become resistant to these cancers. By studying these unique cancer models, we can discover new fundamental insights about how cancers interact with their hosts and this information can be used to develop novel methods to stop cancer.

“By studying these unique contagious cancers, we can learn about how cancers evolve and how their hosts can evolve resistance to cancers—this will lead to new understanding of the role of these pathogens in the environment as well as potentially leading to new cancer treatment strategies in humans.”

Michael Metzger, PhD

Assistant Investigator

Lab Members

Zachary Child

Research Technician

Fiona Garrett

Research Technician

Peter Smith

Research Technician

Sydney Weinandt

Research Technician


Michael Metzger, PhD

Michael Metzger, PhD, is an Assistant Investigator at PNRI and an affiliate faculty member in the University of Washington’s Department of Genome Sciences and the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program. He earned his BS at Cornell University. Then, he went onto the University of Washington for his MS in Epidemiology and PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology, focusing on targeted methods of viral gene therapy, in the lab of Dr. Dusty Miller at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. During his postdoctoral studies he was awarded the Andy Kaplan Prize in Retrovirology and was a Columbia University & NYC ASCENT Postdoctoral Research Symposium Award winner. It was while conducting his postdoctoral work with Dr. Stephen Goff at Columbia University that he found some cancers in clams were actually transmissible from animal to animal, a discovery which remains the focus of his ongoing research at PNRI.

Research Projects


How have clams evolved resistance to cancer?

Transmissible cancer in clams is different from the cancers in humans, but differences can be valuable. These infectious cancers have affected broad, diverse wild populations of clams, and evidence suggests that the clam populations have evolved resistance to the cancers.


How does transmissible cancer spread in clams and other bivalves?

Transmissible cancer is a fatal infectious pathogen that infects many species of bivalve around the world, and it is a type of infectious disease that we have just recently discovered. The Metzger Lab is working to understand how transmissible cancers spread both within a single population and between populations.


How do cancers evolve together with their hosts?

All cancer evolves—cells multiply and the ones that are better able to survive and grow in the body will increase in number—but in humans this evolution usually has a short timescale. The unique transmissible cancers in clams and other species live far beyond a single host body—for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Michael Metzger, PhD
Awards & Honors


Andy Kaplan Prize in Retrovirology

Awarded to a postdoc or early investigator at the Cold Spring Harbor Retroviruses Meeting


Columbia University & NYC ASCENT Postdoctoral Research Symposium Award Winner

5 awards out of 110 abstracts from the entire Columbia University research community


NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Honorable Mention