For 17 years, Carol A. Nacy was a career scientist and science manager for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, studying tropical, infectious diseases and publishing more than 100 papers.
Then, she had a midlife career crisis of sorts. But instead of buying a Corvette or getting divorced, she branched out of research and academia to the corporate side of the industry.
“I got really good at curing mice of diseases,” Nacy, CEO and board chair of Rockville biotech Sequella, said of her laboratory days. “But after 17 years there, I had to ask if that was all there was.”
Since that change, Nacy has been chief scientific officer at Rockville public biotech EntreMed and Anergen, a former California company that focused on autoimmune diseases before it was acquired. She co-founded the Sequella Global Tuberculosis Foundation, a Rockville nonprofit, now known as Aeras, that works on tuberculosis vaccines.
She has garnered a host of awards from a diverse array of parties that include the Global Alliance to Immunize against AIDS Vaccine Foundation, Women in Bio, Inc. Magazine and the National Urban Technology Center.
But Nacy’s main business baby is Sequella, which she co-founded in 1996 as a company that would develop drugs and treatments to combat serious life-threatening diseases that confound humanity worldwide, such as tuberculosis.
Besides having research collaborations with some major players, like Johnson & Johnson, Sequella has an agreement with a Russian venture fund to develop a treatment for tuberculosis in the Russian Federation and neighboring countries that could be worth as much as $50 million.
A Russian biotech company, Infectex, recently began Phase IIb-III pivotal clinical trials using SQ109, a drug that Sequella developed. Russia is among the countries with the highest levels of tuberculosis in the world.
“While tuberculosis is a problem in the United States, as we are seeing in cities such as Los Angeles, it is such an enormous problem elsewhere,” Nacy said.
Nacy was born in Japan in the midst of an earthquake. Her early life was about as moving. With her father in the Army, Nacy’s family transferred some 14 times before she reached college. She lived everywhere from Germany and Washington, D.C., to Texas and Washington state.
“I didn’t mind it so much until I got to high school,” she said. “It was always an adventure to go to a new place.”
She landed a scholarship at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she studied biology and became intrigued with bacteria. She stayed there to get master’s and doctorate degrees. A National Academy of Sciences post-doc fellowship at Walter Reed led to her 17-year scientist position there.
There’s the good kind of bacteria, such as those that people rely on to digest food, and the not-so-good kind that cause havoc, Nacy said. That the human body can find the proper balance between these organisms to survive is one of the wonders of science, she said.
“You have more microorganisms in you than human cells,” Nacy said. “The only time we think about this is when they cause a problem.”
Nacy maintains strong ties to scientific associations, as she was president of the American Society for Microbiology and was on the board of the National Academy of Science, National Research Council. She also has served on boards of for-profit companies, including a present stint with Social & Scientific Systems, a Silver Spring provider of technical, research and program management health services.
Many sing her praises.
“Carol understands bioscience — both public and private — and has a good head for business strategy,” said James J. Lynch, president and CEO of Social & Scientific Systems. “She’s tough-minded, yet compassionate.”
Nacy not only has a great reputation as a well-respected entrepreneur and scientist locally, but nationally for her work, said Marty Zug, former CFO of Sequella, who is now COO of Diamond Mind, a Potomac provider of electronic payment services to independent schools.
“To take a company from nothing to Phase IIb-III clinical trials on a treatment for tuberculosis is a big deal,” Zug said. “There haven’t been many companies that have done that.”
With the private biotechs, Nacy has spent a good amount of time writing grant proposals for funding with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and other agencies. She also has attracted more than 100 investors who not only want to make money but want to support a company that “can make a huge difference in the world,” she said.
Sequella also has obtained funding from the state’s biotech investment tax credit program, an $8 million annual program that Zug lobbied on regularly.
But as such grants and programs get more competitive, more has to be done to make sure the local companies working to combat some of the world’s worst diseases continue their work, Nacy said.
“Maryland and Montgomery County are very supportive to the life sciences industry,” she said. “But we don’t have a sufficient number of venture capital firms here the way Silicon Valley and other regions that also have strong biotechnology communities do.”