What’s it like to be part of history?

Not some long ago history, but the last two years.

Two Metropolis natives — brothers actually — can attest.

Greg and David Blackwell are the youngest children born to Minnie Blackwell and the late Phinis Blackwell, the younger brothers of Pat and Norma Blackwell. Greg is part of the COVID-19 test produced by Abbott Labs, while David is part of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine team.

“David and I remarked last year of what were the odds that two little boys of color — we were called a little different back when we were growing up — would be where we are now,” Greg said. “What a blessing!”

From an early age, the boys and their family knew that careers in science were in their futures.

“Greg’s always been in chemistry,” Pat Blackwell said. “We got him a chemistry set as a kid. He’d make little fires at home. David always wanted to be a veterinarian. He always had cats and dogs at the house.”

•••

Greg Blackwell remembers one fire incident.

“I was always a tinkerer, a nerd. I’d take things apart. I had several historical incidents at home where I was burning holes in the floor, blowing up my brother’s toy boat,” he said, trying to hold back his laughter at the memory. “When I was 7 or 8, I took his boat apart. It was one of those where when it bumped into something, it turned around. It made noises and had a light on top. I reasoned the light needed electricity, so I took the boat apart and put the light in the socket. And, of course, it blew up and surprised me.”

Greg has “always been interested in science since a young age. My mom was really supportive,” he said. “She had me in a science book club; they sent books every month or quarter on different science topics — heat, light, sound. I ate that stuff up. … Mom kept this notebook where I designed all these weird spaceships. I was in preschool. They had these weird, non-sensical names for them. I’d name every one of them. I’ve been doing this stuff since I can remember. It’s been in my blood all around.”

It got further ingrained when he was in sixth-grade, trying to get a closer look at a science experiment — where metal is dropped into hydrochloric acid and when dissolves gives off hydrogen gas that is captured in bottle, which, when opened near open flame, gives a pop — caught his hair on fire.

“Of course, I had to get really close to see it because I found it really cool,” Greg said. “I had a really large afro then. Right when he was popping it, he caught my hair on fire.”

The “he” of that incident was Mr. Charles Downing, who was Greg’s principal and sixth-grade science teacher.

“He saw I had an interest in science. He was very influential,” Greg said.

At Metropolis Community High School, Greg had to chose between chemistry or physics. He chose chemistry with teacher Dee Stewart, who “saw I was real interested. She was very helpful and influential. We talked about careers,” including engineering.

She got an invitation for Greg to attend a dinner hosted by Union Carbide, which eventually became USEC, for high schoolers who were interested in the sciences to talk to its engineers.

“I was completely sold then,” he said. “I made the decision to be an engineer after listening to them.”

Greg received a National Merit Scholarship and got his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois. He sent a graduation invitation and thank you to Downing, Stewart and high school counselor Clifford Anderson for their assistance and influence in making the achievement possible.

During college, Greg interned for a summer at Union Carbide and another summer at Allied Chemical, which eventually became Honeywell.

“That was influential,” he said of those internships. “It really helped seal the deal as far as knowing this is what I want to do.”

•••

David Blackwell’s career is based on asking the right questions to get the right answers. Ironically, it happened to be the right question that set him on that career path, one that has allowed him to be part of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Like his siblings, David graduated from Metropolis Community High School. From there, he went on to Southern Illinois University Carbondale, majoring in chemistry before going on to veterinary school. He wasn’t quite finished with his chemistry degree, but knew he would be moving on to Tuskegee University for his veterinary medicine degree. With that in mind, he opted not to continue his undergraduate degree at SIU and decided to stay home and work that year, August 1983-84.

“Our dad wasn’t doing well, and it was a good time to spend time with him since with vet school I would be away for those four years. So I stayed home and worked at Massac Memorial Hospital, where I was born. It was great because I did everything from maintenance to the phlebotomy lab, so I did the blood work,” he said.

He also “absorbed all I could there — I’d go down to physical therapy, radiology. When there was a biopsy, I’d go down and talk to the histopathologist. It was a really good place to absorb information,” David said.

He was working at MMH when the late Bill Whitnel, who was a dean at Shawnee Community College and the father of a high school classmate, asked about his future plans. David said he was waiting for veterinary school and working to prepare for that.

“He asked how I was going to pay for it. I told him I was going to take loans out because nothing else was available. He asked if I’d ‘considered reaching out to pharmaceutical companies because they’re always looking for people like yourself.’ I had no idea; that was not on my radar,” David recalled. “I was wise to take his advice.

“This was the early ‘80s, before laptops, PCs, Google. The (hospital) pharmacy had a supplier list, so I made a photocopy of it and wrote a letter to all of those companies’ sales distribution sites because I didn’t know how else to get to headquarters,” he continued. “In one case, the letter got to the R&D (research & development) folks at CIBA-Geigy Pharmaceuticals. They sent a letter asking if I’d be interested in coming out for an interview for a potential internship. We arranged it.”

Dr. Vince Trainor was the company general manager, the executive director of the company’s drug safety organization and an avid New York Knicks fan. The company was in New Jersey, just across from New York City. Walt Frazier, who was playing for the Knicks at the time, was a senior at SIUC when the Salukis won the NIT Tournament in 1967, and David’s sister Pat went to SIU with him and was his friend.

When Trainor saw that David had “gone to Carbondale, we had an immediate bond, so he moved heaven and earth for me. It just goes to show — get a sponsor, it’s amazing what happens,” he said.

•••

With his chemical engineering degree, Greg spent his first three years out of college working at Dow-Corning in Carrollton, Kentucky.

“I enjoyed the job, but I had this thing in the back of my head that I really enjoyed the biochemistry and organic chemistry courses I had taken — the whole bio piece of it,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a doctor, because you don’t get to play around — you can’t tinker around and experiment, you can’t do that Frankenstein thing. I decided before I got too far in chemical engineering as a career to go explore other options.

“At the time, bioengineering was a fairly new field and most colleges didn’t have a separate course structure or their own department for it. It was part of some other engineering — industrial, chemical, electrical,” he added.

Greg’s dip into exploring a bioengineering career led him to the University of Louisville for an anatomy & physiology course through the nursing program. Located an hour from Carrolton, he was still able to work.

“I really enjoyed it” and when he finished, he took the GRE exam to see about getting in grad school. He was accepted at five, including U of I, Johns-Hopkins, Texas A&M and Clemson.

Through his co-workers, Greg had also seen that it took five to 10 years to get a degree while also working. “I didn’t want to string it out. I decided if I was going to do it, I was going to go all in,” so his choice “boiled down to the money — who’d give me money to go there.”

A&M offered him a paid tuition, “which was dirt cheap at the time,” and Greg packed his bags and moved to Texas, sight unseen.

•••

David spent his first winter break from Tuskegee at CIBA “getting my feet wet, hitting the ground running and getting the internship going.” He interned for three summers at “my first introduction to pharmaceutical science and industry.”

After getting his degree at Tuskegee, “I had a choice of what I wanted to do after vet school — continue and get my PhD, or go to work. At that point, I was through with school. I pretty much knew in vet school that I really wasn’t going to be your traditional practitioner. It was great way of life, but not the way of life I wanted at that time. Research was a really good option for me. Because of exposure (through CIBA), I got into the pharmaceutical industry. I applied to various companies and ended up at Pfizer a few weeks after graduation and my wife (who was also attended vet school) started her residency at Yale, so that brought us to Connecticut.”

•••

Most of Greg’s A&M classmates were paving the way to medical school. One was a year ahead of him and had a job working at a Houston hospital as a hypothermia therapist. He was about to go to medical school and told Greg about the opening.

“They hired me, and I was able to do that for 2 ½ years. That was really interesting,” Greg said. “I had a masters in bioengineering. I wasn’t a medical student, but I got to treat patients right out of college because it was experimental treatments — microwave, radio wave, heating of cancer tumors. It was in the ‘80s. There was no standard verification because it was all experimental. I got to treat humans and mice; it was interesting. I’ve been very blessed to get into some very interesting positions.”

Greg moved on to Dallas, got engaged, began working at a start-up civic electric company, got married in August and was laid off in December.

“Fortunately, one of the guys was a consultant who knew a project manager at Abbott and said they were starting a new product and maybe with my skill set it’d work out,” he said. “I got an interview, and she hired me on the spot.”

It was the late 1980s, and Greg became the first engineer to work in system integration and system chemistry at Abbott Labs.

“Things were transitioning from manual labs — I was in the first generation of lab automation,” he said. “All of the people doing that job were either chemists who’d done the lab stuff or worked in the hospitals as phlebotomists who drew the blood and ran the instruments. You had to know a lot about blood samples because you had to track everything yourself, there weren’t bar codes or anything.”

That was 29 years ago. Now, Greg is working in Abbott Labs’ research & development portion, primarily in diagnostics, at Dallas/Fort Worth. “I’ve worked on eight platforms and hopefully we’ll be starting on the ninth this year,” he said.

•••

David marked 33 years with Pfizer in July 2021. He worked himself up the lab a Groton, Connecticut, and is now a senior director overseeing a general toxicology group, which does the non-clinical screening of drug candidates or vaccines to make sure they are safe for clinical trials.

“There are three phases of development — non-clinical, clinical and submission,” he said. “Then you get approval based on your data. We make sure the drugs are safe because at that point, we have no idea if they’re going to work or not or the applications.”

Pfizer has two research sites. The Groton site is its Good Laboratory Practice facility, meaning “pretty much all of our drug candidates get their start going through our laboratory there,” David said, noting that “by default, because it was going to clinical trials,” the COVID vaccine “wound up doing its detox work in Groton. It just so happened my group was responsible for it.”

He said his lab started protocol development for the COVID vaccine in June 2020. The studies were conducted in July 2020 and were submitted for the investigational new drug applications in August 2020, “so it was very quick. The agency was willing to work with us — we gave them quality-controlled draft documents and used that to file (with the FDA). We agreed we’d followup with audited studies and reports a month later. It allowed us to cut some time off — normally that would take four months,” he said.

All of this stage was done under lockdown because of COVID.

“Pfizer decided to change the way we work — deciding who needs to be onsite, with the rest staying offsite so we wouldn’t infect them,” David said. “They had precautions built in where we weren’t mixing groups if something did happen.”

Those early days of the pandemic also had another impact as “not everything was moving like it should because supply lines were compromised,” he said. So “it felt really good” to see everything come to fruition.

Prior to the pandemic, Pfizer had “just implemented some changes, and it just hit us at the right time where we were really able to respond. Everything was really well coordinated. We were working with BioNTech, which is in Germany, where the supply was being manufactured, so there was a lot of coordination that had to happen.

“When these drug candidates come through for us, some get to become drugs but most never make it that far. In 30-plus years, quite a few have made it through, which is pretty exciting, but because of efficiencies we’ve built in, we try to be as fast as possible (with the vaccine), we worked really hard to move faster and more efficiently.”

David credits his time at MMH for helping him with his career. “The curiosity, using the scientific method, addressing the problem stating the hypothesis and could you test it to see what happens — that’s pretty much what we do (at Pfizer), whether it’s a medicine or trying to develop medicine: it’s asking the right questions to get the right answers,” he said.

•••

While Abbott’s East Coast rapid diagnostics division developed the BIONIX rapid test for COVID, Greg’s division worked on the large instruments that go into hospital and laboratories that use blood, plasma, serum or urine to test for the coronavirus.

“That’s what the first COVID tests came from,” Greg said. “Those were by the molecular folks in Chicago; they used DNA to detect disease exposed to antibodies; they’re looking at the molecular structure DNA. Most of the stuff I work with is amino acids or antibodies.”

Greg’s division also does the molecular test to figure out if the COVID strain is delta variant.

“It’s a group thing,” he said. “As an R&D organization, it was all hands on deck to get these vaccines out there. The assets were developed in Chicago by the biochemists who came up with the test, but making it work on the automated piece is what we do — integrating the assets so we get the right recipe to make sure you get consistent results all the time.

“The basic antibodies stuff has been out there for a long time, so once you know what it is and come up with test for it, the tricky part is making it sustainable so you can do it time and time again,” he continued. “To get consistent results day after day across different instruments and parts of the world is the tricky part — to make it a consistent product. The biochemists are the ones really dealing with the variants. One of the things we test for is specificity — how good is it against different variants. It’s a lot of testing to prove it. You try on your first shot to get as much coverage as you can.”

And that’s just one disease his department works with. “We have to keep all the other things going, too,” he added. “We have 150-something assays. People are still getting treated for all the other things so you have to keep those balls in the air, too — that goes on no matter what happens with the other test. We have to keep all of that in perspective.”

David’s lab isn’t involved in preparing for COVID variants

“We’re really reliant on other countries on the variant piece because we’re not set up to do a lot of that assessment in our current health environment,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you’ve got to be a really tight-knit world health community, which we’re starting to be. We’re relying on the experts to say what’s going on, and we react to it, hoping that, if everyone gets vaccinated sooner rather than later, then variants won’t be so prevalent. … It’s been an interesting ride. Just doing our part to address the current pandemic and hope, from a public health perspective, we’ll all learn and do a better job so we’re all ready for the next one.”

•••

As they’re technically competitors, the brothers “really don’t talk shop most of the time,” Greg said. “We remarked that it was pretty cool that we were doing this stuff — Pfizer coming out with a vaccine and Abbott with a test. It’s a neat thing. Both of us have been working in the neighborhood of 30 years. It’s a nice way to wind up your career.”

Greg said when the test was made public, it was “a very proud moment. It was a big celebration that we had that piece of it going. The Blue Angels flew over Abbott; that was pretty cool. That kind of stuff makes you feel proud that you’re a part of it.”

But which is better to be part of? That depends on the brother.

“The kicker was my brother was getting all the credit for doing the testing. That was great, but that’s not really helping,” David said with a laugh. “I’m gonna be part of the answer, part of the cure, not just tell you you’ve got COVID. … We’re just a little bit competitive.”

However, under both circumstances, Greg noted their COVID work “fell into your lap and here you are. It’s part of your job. You don’t pay much attention, you just go, go, go. But you can look back and say after the fact you were part of it. Looking back it’s an exciting thing.”

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