Rockefeller laboratory of systems cancer biology

Metastasis, or the spread of cancer from a primary tumor to a distal organ, is the primary cause of cancer death. Despite this fact, the molecular mechanisms and fascinating biology underlying metastatic progression are poorly understood. Scientists in our lab are discovering the critical genes and cellular processes that drive this process and have provided the first evidence for a role of hereditary genetics in human metastasis formation. We are applying this understanding towards development of the next generation of cancer therapeutics that selectively target metastatic disease. By studying how cancer cells turn genes on and off during metastasis, our scientists have also uncovered new mechanisms of gene regulation mediated by transfer RNAs. We employ a broad range of approaches and technologies, including many we have developed to aid our studies. Our overarching goals are to understand metastasis biology as a means of developing curative anti-metastatic therapies and to train future leaders in biomedical research.


Unlocking the Mysteries of Metastasis & Gene Regulation

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Sohail Tavazoie MD PhD

Leon Hess Professor, Meyer Laboratory of Systems Cancer Biology 

Director, Black Family Metastasis Center

Sohail graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, completed an MD-PhD program at Harvard-MIT followed by  Internal Medicine residency training at Brigham & Women's Hospital/Harvard and medical oncology fellowship training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In 2009, he was recruited to Rockefeller University as Head of the Laboratory of Systems Cancer Biology and was promoted to Professor in 2018. Sohail is the president of the American Society of Clinical Investigation and a member of the National Academy of Medicine's Emerging Leaders forum. Sohail believes that the best science happens when diverse people come together in a supportive, collaborative and fun environment. Our lab members tend to be friendly, creative and bold. Our lab is very diverse--scientifically, internationally, racially and with respect to sexual orientation. Scientists are given the space to grow but also provided extensive mentorship--honing speaking, writing, teaching, grant-writing, networking, chalk-talk and social skills that are critical for success at top academic institutions. We strive to do science that is rigorous, impactful and creative. More than 90% of students, postdocs and bachelors students have succeeded in obtaining their desired positions in leading academic and biotech/industry position. Recent postdocs and students are faculty members leading their own labs at top institutions including UCSF, Yale, Columbia, Charite/Berlin, Bergen and UPenn.




Emilie Wang PhD MBA

Grants Administrator

Emilie is a Canadian-New Yorker who completed a PhD program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and received an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business.  Before joining the Tavazoie Lab, she worked for a tech startup focused on transforming care for cancer patients and abroad for Médecins sans Frontières.

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Lab Manager

Nandan has conducted past research in the areas of oncogenesis and stem cell biology. He is lab manager and assists lab members in molecular and animal studies.



Postdoctoral Fellow

Xuhang is from Guangzhou (China), a city best known for its Cantonese cuisine and culture. After obtaining his B.S. in Biology from Peking University, Beijing, he did his Ph.D. thesis on elucidating mammalian microRNA biogenesis pathways at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the Tavazoie laboratory in 2013 to study the roles that microRNAs and other non-coding RNAs play in cancer metastasis.


Michelle Wilson

Administrative Assistant

Michelle is an English major with a background in cultural studies, born in Costa Rica and raised in Texas. She specializes in organizational skills with the purpose to simplify the lives of others. Michelle loves warm weather, swimming in the ocean and watching movies with her family along with travel, yoga and holistic wellness.

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Graduate Student

Maria grew up on Long Island, and completed her undergraduate training in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University in 2015. Maria joined the Tavazoie laboratory in 2017 as part of the Tri-I MD-PhD program, to study the role of tRNAs in cancer metastasis. In her spare time, Maria enjoys singing, baking, and skiing.



Graduate Student

Norihiro was born, raised, and educated in Osaka, Japan.  It was the first time for him to go outside of 3 miles radius from his home in Osaka when he did clinical oncology externship at Massachusetts General Hospital as a final year medical student.  Life is so unpredictable to see himself doing research in NY. Making a bridge from science to medicine is his task.

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Alon Millet 

Graduate Student

Alon was born in Israel but grew up in New Jersey, and he completed his joint B.S./M.S. in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology from Yale University in 2020. He joined the Tavazoie Lab in 2021 with the Tri-Institutional Program in Computational Biology and Medicine and aims to leverage both wet and dry lab approaches to study central questions in tumor systems immunology. If he's not in the lab, Alon can be found either cooking and baking in the kitchen or playing piano in the most hermetically soundproofed room he can find.



Clinica Fellow

Dennis is from the Bay Area and obtained his B.S. in Engineering Physics from the University of California, Berkeley. He traveled to the midwest for medical school at the Cleveland Clinic, completed his medicine residency at the University of Michigan, and is currently a medical oncology fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. His prior research experiences have involved topics ranging from biomedical optics to studying KRAS biology in colon cancer. He joined the Tavazoie lab in 2017 to study tRNA modulations in cancer while completing his oncology fellowship. In his spare time, Dennis enjoys traveling, trying new foods, and keeping up with new technologies.


Veena Padmanaban PhD

Postdoctoral Fellow

I am originally from India and received my undergraduate training from SRM University in Chennai, India. I then conducted graduate training in the lab of Andrew Ewald at Johns Hopkins where I used imaging methods to elucidate the mechanisms underlying breast cancer adhesion, invasion and progression. 


King Faisal Yambire PhD

Research Assistant

King grew  up in Ghana and obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Ghana. He completed his PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Goettingen in German, studying signaling between the lysosome and mitochondria. King joined the Tavazoie lab in 2020 and is excited to study the roles of mitochondrial tRNAs in physiology and cancer metastasis. He is a super fan of Real Madrid and Arsenal. He engages in most sporting activities, especially soccer and volleyball. He also likes to travel and try new things when not at the bench.



Postdoctoral Fellow

Alexandra was born and raised in Romania, where she developed a passion for studying biology. She moved to Germany for her undergraduate studies and received her BSc in Biochemistry and Cell Biology from Jacobs University Bremen. Alexandra migrated further west to the US, for her PhD. During her graduate studies, she investigated the impact of telomere dysfunction on cancer development in the lab of Dr. Agnel Sfeir at NYU Langone Health. In November 2018, Alexandra joined the Tavazoie lab as a postdoc associate, in order to decipher the regulation of tRNA isoacceptors in cancer metastasis. Outside of lab, Alexandra enjoys visiting museums, browsing bookstores, cooking and dancing.



Graduate Student

Nneoma spent her early childhood in Bronx, NY and received her B.S. in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology from Yale University in 2015, where she remained for a year to continue her studies on DNA repair inhibitors produced by Ecuadorian fungal endophytes. She was happy to finally return to New York City in 2016 as a member of the Tri-Institutional MD-PhD program and joined the Tavazoie Lab in 2018 with the aim of identifying new mechanisms and therapeutic targets for cancer metastasis. When not in lab she enjoys traveling, biking, soccer, bingeing TV shows, and going to concerts.


Mira Patel MD

Postdoctoral Fellow

Mira hails from Rochester, NY and received her B.A. in Biological Sciences and Government from Cornell University. She attended medical school at Johns Hopkins University, where she spent dedicated time in the lab studying the glioblastoma immune microenvironment. She subsequently completed her clinical residency in Radiation Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She joined the Tavazoie Lab in 2020 as a Rockefeller Clinical Scholar to study genetic modifiers of cancer metastasis. In her spare time, she enjoys running, the outdoors, and exploring the NYC restaurant scene.


Wenbin Mei

Graduate student

Wenbin grew up in Guangzhou and completed his undergraduate training in Biology and Mathematics at Peking University. For his PhD,  he is applying computational and functional approaches to study the regulation of metastasis. In his spare time, he enjoys joining his girlfriend in New Haven.


Wenbin Mei

Graduate student

Wenbin grew up in Guangzhou and completed his undergraduate training in Biology and Mathematics at Peking University. For his PhD,  he is applying computational and functional approaches to study the regulation of metastasis. In his spare time, he enjoys joining his girlfriend in New Haven.





Therapeutic harnessing of adaptive immunity via checkpoint inhibition has transformed the treatment of many cancers. Despite unprecedented long-term responses, most patients do not respond to these therapies. Immunotherapy non-responders often harbor high levels of circulating myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs)-an immunosuppressive innate cell population. Through genetic and pharmacological approaches, we uncovered a pathway governing MDSC abundance in multiple cancer types. Therapeutic liver-X nuclear receptor (LXR) agonism reduced MDSC abundance in murine models and in patients treated in a first-in-human dose escalation phase 1 trial. MDSC depletion was associated with activation of cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) responses in mice and patients. The LXR transcriptional target ApoE mediated these effects in mice, where LXR/ApoE activation therapy elicited robust anti-tumor responses and also enhanced T cell activation during various immune-based therapies. We implicate the LXR/ApoE axis in the regulation of innate immune suppression and as a target for enhancing the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy in patients.



Transfer RNAs (tRNAs) are primarily viewed as static contributors to gene expression. By developing a high-throughput tRNA profiling method, we find that specific tRNAs are upregulated in human breast cancer cells as they gain metastatic activity. Through loss-of-function, gain-of-function, and clinical-association studies, we implicate tRNAGluUUC and tRNAArgCCG as promoters of breast cancer metastasis. Upregulation of these tRNAs enhances stability and ribosome occupancy of transcripts enriched for their cognate codons. Specifically, tRNAGluUUC promotes metastatic progression by directly enhancing EXOSC2 expression and enhancing GRIPAP1-constituting an "inducible" pathway driven by a tRNA. The cellular proteomic shift toward a pro-metastatic state mirrors global tRNA shifts, allowing for cell-state and cell-type transgene expression optimization through codon content quantification. TRNA modulation represents a mechanism by which cells achieve altered expression of specific transcripts and proteins. TRNAs are thus dynamic regulators of gene expression and the tRNA codon landscape can causally and specifically impact disease progression.


Tumoural activation of TLR3-SLIT2 in endothelium drives metastasis. Nature, 2020

Blood vessels support tumours by providing nutrients and oxygen, while also acting as conduits for the dissemination of cancer1. Here we use mouse models of breast and lung cancer to investigate whether endothelial cells also have active 'instructive' roles in the dissemination of cancer. We purified genetically tagged endothelial ribosomes and their associated transcripts from highly and poorly metastatic tumours. Deep sequencing revealed that metastatic tumours induced expression of the axon-guidance gene Slit2 in endothelium, establishing differential expression between the endothelial (high Slit2 expression) and tumoural (low Slit2 expression) compartments. Endothelial-derived SLIT2 protein and its receptor ROBO1 promoted the migration of cancer cells towards endothelial cells and intravasation. Deleting endothelial Slit2 suppressed metastatic dissemination in mouse models of breast and lung cancer. Conversely, deletion of tumoural Slit2 enhanced metastatic progression. We identified double-stranded RNA derived from tumour cells as an upstream signal that induces expression of endothelial SLIT2 by acting on the RNA-sensing receptor TLR3. Accordingly, a set of endogenous retroviral element RNAs were upregulated in metastatic cells and detected extracellularly. Thus, cancer cells co-opt innate RNA sensing to induce a chemotactic signalling pathway in endothelium that drives intravasation and metastasis. These findings reveal that endothelial cells have a direct instructive role in driving metastatic dissemination, and demonstrate that a single gene (Slit2) can promote or suppress cancer progression depending on its cellular source.


Portfolio of Work


We have identified critical genes that regulate metastasis formation in common cancers. We seek to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms by which these genes regulate metastasis formation within the metastatic niche. We have also uncovered the first evidence for a hereditary genetic basis of human metastasis. We are employing powerful molecular, genetic, biochemical, pharmacological, imaging, and clinical association approaches to discover additional heritable genes underlying cancer metastasis and to understand their mechanisms of action.



Our discovery of critical genes that regulate metastasis formation has unveiled new therapeutic paths. We are developing small-molecule and antibody-based therapeutics as a means of preventing and eradicating metastatic disease. We have advanced these approaches into human clinical testing with our collaborators at the biotechnology company Inspirna, where proof-of-concept for two of these therapies has been observed in advanced stage and refractory cancers. We are working towards developing anti-metastatic combination regimens that will be curative.



We have found that as cancers become metastatic, specific tRNAs become modulated. This is surprising, since tRNAs are thought to be static adaptor molecules. Such tRNA modulations enable enhanced translation of pro-metastatic genes. We are employing molecular, genetic, and biochemical approaches to understand the basic mechanisms by which this non-canonical gene regulatory mechanism operates.

Lab Experiment


tRNAs have been observed to undergo cleavage across species upon exposure of cells to stress. We have observed that specific tRNAs become fragmented--generating small trans-acting tRNA fragments that regulate gene expression via interactions with RNA binding proteins. We are studying the mechanisms of generation and action of such stress-induced tRFs in nematode, mouse, and human cells. By understanding this process, we aim to exploit tRNA-fragmentation as an anti-cancer therapy.



Jose Ledo attains faculty position at the Medical University of South Carolina!

July 2022

A huge Congrats to Jose for obtaining a faculty position at the Medical University of South Carolina. Jose's lab will study the role of neuro-immune interactions in Alzheimer's disease. Keep up the great work Jose!

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Ben Ostendorf named Group leader and faculty member at world-renowned Charite University in Berlin

Aug 2021

We are so thrilled that our amazing Ben Ostendorf has been selected to be Group Leader and faculty member at the Charite University in Berlin--a top biomedical research center in Germany that has hosted more than half of all German Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prize winners. We're sure you'll keep up the tradition Ben!!

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Ryan Moy named Assistant Professor at Columbia University!

June, 2021

We are incredibly excited for Ryan Moy who will be starting as a faculty member at Columbia University as an Assistant Professor. Ryan, who has already secured NIH K funding will be a physician scientist focusing on gastrointestinal cancer progression. Congrats Ryan!! We look forward to your continued success!!

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Ben Ostendorf named Group leader and faculty member at world-renowned Charite University in Berlin

Aug 2021

We are so thrilled that our amazing Ben Ostendorf has been selected to be Group Leader and faculty member at the Charite University in Berlin--a top biomedical research center in Germany that has hosted more than half of all German Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prize winners. Given your remarkable abilities, we're sure you'll keep up the tradition Ben!!

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Veena receives highly prestigious Hope Funds Fellowship Award

Aug 2021

We are so excited that Veena Padmanaban has been selected a Hope Funds for Cancer Research Fellow. This national prestigious award will fund Veena's highly innovative work focused on the molecular regulation of cancer metastasis. Veena, you make it all look so easy!

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Dennis Hsu recruited to the University of Pittsburgh

September 2021

We are very proud that Dennis Hsu, who was recently awarded a large Damon Runyon research award and will continue to pioneer computational and experimental approaches to the study of cancer progression at the University of Pittsburgh. Congrats, we will miss your broad brilliance in bioinformatics, metabolism, and medical oncology!

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Research Opportunities

January 25, 2020


We seek highly talented postdoctoral applicants who are passionate about the biology and genetics of cancer metastasis or novel modes of gene regulation by tRNAs. We are especially interested in scientists with expertise and training in diverse disciplines who are new to cancer biology.

Petri Dish


Thanks for submitting!