A Modern Miracle
from the Record, Spring 2023
By Alexandra Evans
“I distinctly remember a conversation just a few months before the pandemic hit with members of Dr. Fauci’s team at our Norwood, Massachusetts, facility talking about the situation where we would need to respond fast and how this platform is tailor made to do that.”
Massachusetts-based Moderna Therapeutics went from a small startup with big goals to the future of biotech as messenger RNA (mRNA) entered the public lexicon early in 2020. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, mRNA was heralded as the proverbial slingshot needed to defeat the novel coronavirus Goliath.
This was the platform that Scott Nickerson ’95, then Moderna’s senior vice president of manufacturing, was referencing as he reflected on that prophetic conversation with team members of Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, shortly before the world as we knew it changed overnight.
Nickerson, who is now Moderna’s senior vice president of personalized cancer vaccine manufacturing, first heard of mRNA technology when he was already a tenured executive in the biotechnology industry with more than a decade of experience at companies like Eli Lilly and Imclone. In 2014, Nickerson was heading up the quality assurance and control efforts at Alexion—a midsized pharmaceutical company focused on rare disease therapeutics. Alexion was partnering with young biotech startup Moderna to explore the possibility of using mRNA technology to treat and even cure rare diseases.
“When I fundamentally learned what mRNA could do if it worked,” Nickerson says, “I was all in.”
Even with a master’s degree in analytical chemistry from the University of Arizona, Nickerson admits, “I didn’t realize the potential power of mRNA as a medicine due to its function inside the cell.” Recombinant DNA technology, which is used in traditional biotechnology to produce proteins, cannot penetrate human cells to treat for disease caused by mechanisms inside the cell. It can only act in the bloodstream, which vastly limits the application and efficacy of treatment options.
mRNA on the other hand, explains Nickerson, works from inside human cells to teach those cells to make proteins that can either have a therapeutic effect or be used to trigger an immune system response as does a vaccine. Aware that harnessing this technology could potentially have an enormously positive impact on human health, Moderna had been working to do exactly that.
When the pandemic hit, Moderna had already created several mRNA vaccines, including a flu vaccine in 2015, a Zika virus vaccine in 2017—which they worked on with Dr. Fauci’s team in response to the Zika virus epidemic— and personalized cancer vaccines. “We had been making mRNA for a long time in small quantities,” Nickerson says.
“We had a lot of experience on how to take a sequence and encode it in mRNA and then produce medicines. Additionally, because the process of creating therapeutics and vaccines with mRNA technology is the same and because we’re not dealing with live cells in mRNA vaccines, we were able to manufacture with very rapid turnaround times, which is not typical in traditional biotechnology.”
Because of these experiences and the power of the mRNA platform technology, Moderna was able to accomplish the unthinkable when they produced a COVID-19 vaccine that was 94.5 percent effective in just 42 days.
Creating the vaccine was just the first hurdle. That was arguably the easy part, with decades of mRNA research and multiple vaccines from which the Moderna team could build on. Amid supply chain holdups and Moderna’s relatively small workforce of just 300 people, the challenge of safely and successfully manufacturing and rolling out hundreds of millions of doses was considerably more daunting, and this responsibility lay with Nickerson and his team.
“BioNTech, based in Europe, was the other company working on a COVID-19 vaccine. They chose to partner with Pfizer to scale manufacturing capability and capacity by leveraging Pfizer’s many resources,” says Nickerson. “Frankly, we didn’t have the capacity either but ended up not partnering with another large pharmaceutical company. We achieved this monumental goal by collaborating with contract manufacturers, FDA, CDC, construction firms who helped us build more internal capacity, key suppliers, and the list goes on.”
One of Moderna’s key partners was the U.S. military— specifically General Gustave Perna (U.S. Army-Ret.) and his team—who, supported by Operation Warp Speed, mitigated supply chain issues and opened production channels to allow Moderna to proceed from pre-clinical trials to mass production at truly warp speed.
“The amount of materials we needed was tremendous. There are more than 600 stock keeping units that go together to make the vaccine,” Nickerson says. “We went from a phase one trial where you need hundreds of vials to a global pandemic where you need millions of doses. We had to make a huge financial commitment at the risk of the company; all of our suppliers had to make that commitment as well. General Perna and his team were phenomenal.”
Despite the significant challenges that being a small company battling a global pandemic posed, Moderna’s size is exactly what Nickerson believes made their success possible. “We have a small leadership team that works well together and trusts each other,” he says. “The environment at Moderna is very collaborative. When you have the amount and magnitude of challenges that we did throughout the pandemic, you can’t silo yourself away and hope to solve anything. You have to walk down the hall and say to your colleague, ‘Hell, I don’t know. What do you think?’ You have to be vulnerable. But in order to be vulnerable, you have to trust your colleagues.”
“We’re very bold in what we do,” he continues. “But we’ve also been good about trusting people to make decisions and not putting unnecessary bureaucratic practices in place. We can afford to do that as a smaller company. You feel the decisions that you make in a small company. There is no dilution of responsibility, but it enables us to move fast.”
Small, agile, and innovative is what Nickerson was looking for when he came to Moderna in 2016. “I went into Moderna for two reasons. I had done my due diligence on the science. As far as I could tell, mRNA was the future of medicine. And career-wise I wanted to create and build and feel like I was a part of something, which I got in spades when I came to Moderna.”
SMALL, BUT MIGHTY
Small is also what brought Nickerson to Hampden- Sydney in 1991. Born and raised in Winchester, Virginia, Nickerson was introduced to H-SC by a family friend, and the intimate class sizes and prospect of playing college golf made it the place for him.
“I played golf for a grand total of a semester,” Nickerson says. “Then I got sucked into the labs and lived in Gilmer until about midnight every weeknight.”
An average student in high school, Nickerson’s freshman year at Hampden-Sydney was tough but rewarding. “I started out as pre-med,” he explains, “which for me really meant that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But the chemistry program at Hampden-Sydney is unique, and it was a turning point for me. Each semester was like a mini graduate school project, and the labs got me genuinely interested in science. Connecting the lab experience to the class itself was always an aha moment.”
His growing interest in science was nurtured by the commitment of his professors, notably McGavacks Professor of Chemistry (Ret.) Bill Anderson, Associate Professor of Chemistry (Ret.) Paul Mueller, Venable Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Bill Porterfield, and Spalding Professor of Chemistry Herb Sipe. He reflects on fond memories with each professor that transcend the hierarchical student-professor relationship, a hallmark of the Hampden-Sydney experience: Debating with Dr. Sipe in his office, absorbing Dr. Anderson’s passion and creativity, and sharing one especially pivotal moment with Dr. Porterfield.
“Junior year I hadn’t figured out what I was doing after graduation,” Nickerson begins. “I was taking a class with Dr. Porterfield in which I was the only student.” (How’s that for small class sizes?) “It was the end of the semester before we headed out for summer,” he continues. “Dr. Porterfield said, ‘Have you ever considered doing summer research?’ He picked up a magazine that was on his desk, and in the back there was an advertisement for a summer research fellowship at Colorado State.
He said, ‘How about this one? I know Dr. Strauss; I can call him.’ And he called him right then and there. He hung up the phone, told me to fill out a resume, and in a day or two, I had a fellowship doing graduate-level research with graduate students in Colorado.” He was well-prepared for this level of work even at such a young age because of, in his words, the “non-cookbook” approach to teaching science at Hampden-Sydney. Nickerson noticed the distinction of Hampden-Sydney’s method while he was an undergraduate teaching assistant during his graduate program, where the courses he taught took a linear approach.
“In other undergraduate chemistry programs especially at larger schools, a lesson might start, ‘Today, we’re going to learn how to use the flugenhager,’” Nickerson says, making up a name for a fictional apparatus to illustrate his point. “At Hampden-Sydney,” he continues, “I was given a problem, and it was up to me to learn how to use all the different flugenhagers I needed to be able to solve that problem, which is how the world actually works.” Nickerson points out that Hampden-Sydney’s chemistry program was more akin to his graduate program in its instructional method.
Looking back at all the forks in the roads of his life, Nickerson concludes: “If I hadn’t gone to Hampden- Sydney, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now.”
JUST THE BEGINNING
“Moderna has been the best experience of my career. It’s exhilarating; it’s scary; it’s exhausting,” Nickerson says. But despite the stress and fatigue of the last few years, Nickerson is right where he wanted to be all along—in the center of the action where real, life-changing and -saving progress is being made.
“We all knew in our guts that this technology would work,” he says. “Now we’ve proven that it works and much faster and on a bigger scale because we had to.”
With a treasure trove of resources and experience now at their fingertips and the faith of investors and the scientific community at their back, Moderna and Nickerson are looking forward to the future of mRNA technology. “There’s still a lot left to be proven in arenas like rare disease and oncology,” Nickerson admits. “But there’s a lot of promise. You feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to get it right because of what it could mean.”
What appeared as a miracle to the rest of the world was the culmination of hard work, determination, and steadfastness in the face of adversity. Who better to be in the mix of such a process than a Hampden-Sydney man?