A Different Approach to Cancer Research
Michael Metzger has always valued thinking differently. And he’s never been afraid of asking the big questions — which might explain why he double-majored in biochemistry and philosophy as an undergraduate. Science ultimately won out, but Michael never stopped tackling tough problems creatively. These days, though, they’re about cancer.
During his postdoctoral training, Michael began searching for a virus that was believed to be the cause of leukemia-like cancer outbreaks in soft-shell clams. Instead, he found that the cancer cells themselves were the cause of the infections, jumping from one clam to another. And, surprisingly, some of the clams were able to resist the infection and stay healthy.
“Normally, when a person gets cancer, the cancer cells develop within their own body — the cancer doesn’t spread from one person to another,” he says. “But with these clams, that’s exactly what we were seeing. By studying these clams, we can better understand how cancer cells grow and, most importantly, how some clams protect themselves from developing cancer.”
For Michael, the unexpected finding was an inspiration to start thinking about cancer in an entirely new way.
Asking Different Questions, Finding New Solutions
In 2018, Michael established a one-of-a-kind lab at the Pacific Northwest Research Institute (PNRI) to explore the evolution of cancer in clams and the way in which some of the clams were able to prevent becoming infected. By understanding the changes that turn a normal cell into a transmissible cancer cell, how the cancer spreads, and how to protect cells, he and his PNRI colleagues hope to identify new pathways for attacking and destroying cancer in humans.
“PNRI is a perfect place for a scientist like me,” says Michael. “There is a strong culture at PNRI that encourages us to take risks and ask different questions, while always maintaining a commitment to rigorous science.”
“I’ve always been interested in doing the things that nobody else is doing,” says Michael. “When you’re asking questions that are completely different from what other people are asking, you’ll get totally new answers, and that’s what really excites me.”