MJ Swicegood

Alumna Helped Manufacture Cancer-Fighting Drug

MJ Swicegood, a 2013 Hood graduate and current Hood MBA student, is working at Leidos BioMedical in a pilot vaccine facility where she works with topical vaccines including Zika, HIV and the flu.

She previously worked at MedImmune where she helped develop the cancer-fighting drug, Keytruda, which is credited with helping former President Jimmy Carter.

Swicegood graduated with a biology degree and a minor in business administration. After graduation, she worked at MedImmune in the buffer and media department before transitioning to the cell culture department in biologics manufacturing where she stayed for two years and during which time she worked on Keytruda. Her current focus is in cell culture and fermentation with Leidos BioMedical.

“What I do is basically like zoology on a very small scale,” Swicegood said. “I care for cultured and mutated mammalian and bacterial cells that are programmed to act like factories; they create medicines, plasmids or therapies.”

During the manufacturing of Keytruda, Swicegood was a trained cell culturist who worked the night shift, as the drug required 24/7 cell maintenance, running multiple batches at a time. Keytruda, also known as Pembrolizumab, helps remove from T cells the blinders that prevent them from locating and destroying the cancer cells. It allows the T cells to locate and attack the cancer cells.

“It was a huge undertaking and awesome team effort, and I am so proud to have been part of it,” she said. “We began working on large-scale manufacturing of Keytruda in 2014, and it was a huge part of our team’s effort for over a year.”

Swicegood worked with her team to culture and grow the cells that are immortal, meaning they will grow until they are the size of their containers. The cells start in very small containers and grow into larger ones, eventually ending up in bioreactors. They are fed media (liquid cell food) as well as sugars and salts accordingly.

After Swicegood and her team grew the cells, another team purified the medicine through various stages of chromatography. The drug was introduced publically last year with President Jimmy Carter’s cancer therapy, and Swicegood’s team is thrilled to see what it will do for immunotherapy in the future.

In June, Merck, the company that makes Keytruda commercially, reported that clinical trials of the drug have shown a 56 percent positive rate, which is outstanding according to Swicegood. They are looking to reach it into use for a variety of cancers.

While at Hood, Swicegood focused primarily on ecology, and she credits the cell biology class with Professor Ricky Hirschhorn as an essential piece of her work today. She has used her skills from that class to monitor cells using devices that count the cells daily, sometimes even hourly, to look for various chemicals present to determine their health.

“It’s challenging to monitor such a large volume of such small creatures,” she said. “Because it is impossible to watch all of them at once, you have to use your knowledge of their biology to see what they are producing.”

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