Chemistry and Biochemistry

On the Research Frontier: A BYU Alumnus and Pfizer Employee Dedicated to Revolutionizing Cancer Treatment

Posted: Sep 10, 2021

Erik Hicken finished his schooling at BYU in 2005 after receiving his degree in Organic Chemistry and working in Dr. Merritt Andrus’ lab. Of his experience at BYU he remembered, “I got a breadth of experience which has really set me up for success going forward… It was a great place to work.” In Andrus' lab he was able to begin his years of cancer-related research, including studies in the total synthesis of geldanamycin.

“I got a breadth of experience which has really set me up for success going forward.”

After Hicken’s time at BYU, he worked in EJ Forrey’s highly specialized synthetic organic chemistry lab at Harvard that focused on making derivatives of an olfactory antagonist. Soon after, he accepted a job at a small biotech company, Array Biopharma,. He stayed there for twelve years, until the company was acquired by Pfizer, and has since stayed onsite working as an associate research fellow for Pfizer.

Hicken’s experience at BYU helped prepare him for his current field of work. When asked whether his research in Andrus’ lab is similar to his current research at Pfizer he shared, “There’s a lot of similarities. Here we don’t focus on making a drug that’s isolated from a plant or from a tree or from a bacteria, but we’re trying to make new drugs with specific biological activity.” He continued, “The same skills I learned at BYU I apply here at work everyday.” 

At Pfizer, Hicken and his team are currently focused on developing drugs to treat cancer that has spread to the brain. This can be challenging because the brain is very particular about what it lets past the blood brain barrier. The first step for Hicken’s team is developing the new drug and then ensuring that the drug is specifically CNS penetrant. Their goal as a team is to treat brain tumors that spread (metastasize) from other cancers.

While the research is ever-continuing, Hicken shared that he feels blessed to be a part of something he has been passionate about since his undergraduate studies at BYU, recalling that the Lord has led him to where he is supposed to be and to whom he is supposed to work with. In the last few years of work, he has been able to work on two drugs that are currently in clinical trials! 

He reflected that it isn’t uncommon for, “people to work in this industry their entire lives and never actually be able to work on a program that is successful and goes into the clinics to actually treat patients.” While their research may not always be fruitful in terms of producing a new drug each time they run new experiments, Hicken shares that, “What you do adds to the general collective knowledge and makes everyone better.”

Even after years in the lab, Hicken shares that he still loves it. He refers to it as his “fortress of solitude,” and states that it's a way for him to escape the distractions around him and refocus on the science that allows him to truly help people.

While the pandemic briefly affected work schedules at Pfizer, his work continued. Now, the entire staff in the building are fully vaccinated and work has resumed its normal hours and productivity has not suffered.

In his career to date, Hicken feels grateful for his experience at BYU. He feels especially grateful that it helped him to see the value of a good work-life balance. He shares, “When I was working at BYU, I felt like I could still be productive and I didn’t have to leave my family for extended periods of time. BYU taught me that you can be a nice guy, like Merrit Andrus, and you can still be productive and have a big strong research group without having to sacrifice the most important things in life, which are our relationships with our families.”

“BYU taught me that you can be a nice guy… without having to sacrifice the most important things in life, which are our relationships with our families.”

Hicken maintains that focus today with his wife and four wonderful children. He is proud to share that his oldest will be starting her freshman year at BYU in the fall and is hoping to pursue a career in nursing.

Written by Audrey Davis Ahlstrom. Photo credit BYU Photo and Erik Hicken.