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To create effective cancer treatments in the future, we need to understand how cancer evolves. PNRI’s Metzger Lab researches the evolution of cancer from a surprising angle: studying contagious cancer in marine bivalves, like clams and cockles. 

With the support of a grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences, the Metzger Lab is conducting an international cooperative study investigating the virus-like spread of cancers among bivalves along both U.S. coasts. 

Dr. Michael Metzger first discovered the phenomenon of transmissible cancers in clams while conducting his postdoctoral research at Columbia University. This phenomenon kills large numbers of clams, adversely affecting commercial aquaculture. It also has serious consequences for Indigenous communities, like the Suquamish Tribe in Washington State, who are reliant on affected species as traditional food sources. 

This collaborative project embraces the belief that scientific breakthroughs are found in unexpected places—often at the intersection of multiple disciplines. The grant brings together an array of experts from the Suquamish Tribe, Puget Sound Restoration Fund, Western Washington University, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute in Massachusetts, and City, University of London in the UK. 

In their PNRI lab, Dr. Metzger and his team are examining basket cockles from the Pacific Coast and soft-shell clams from the Atlantic Coast to better understand the factors involved in the spread of cancer between animals. Connecting genomic analysis with multi-year ecological surveys and modeling, they are providing a basis for learning how cancer grows and adapts. Insights gained from this study may improve our knowledge of cancer in other species, such as humans.

“Understanding how this form of cancer spreads and how bivalves fight back has important implications for the survival of these species and the people who rely on them,” says Dr. Metzger. “If successful, we will come away with a far better understanding of how these transmissible cancers spread and what we can do to stop them.”