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Óscar Bártulos-Encinas: charting a path for safer and faster therapies

November 14, 2022
by Serena Thaw-Poon

Óscar Bártulos-Encinas, PhD, reflects on his transition from academia to industry.

Óscar Bártulos-Encinas, PhD, is used to charting his own path. When he began his research career in Spain, his laboratory was specialized in the study of the neuro-retina. His focus, however, was on cardiovascular development, an interest borne from a particular mRNA that seemed to have a role in both retinal and cardiovascular development. Eventually, in 2011, he moved to the Yale Cardiovascular Research Center (YCVRC) to work with Yibing Qyang, PhD, who was pioneering the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) for vascular therapies.

iPS research then was only five years old, and much like his previous work, Bártulos-Encinas was diving into the unknown. He dedicated his time to disease modelling and researching therapies for myocardial infarctions (MI), specifically trying to deal with difficulty of keeping iPS/ES-derived cells alive in mice models to successfully replace cardiac muscle. Being at the YCVRC was crucial to him in this regard; not only did cardiovascular surgeons (Dr. Zhuang and Dr. Huang) prepare mice models that mimicked MIs, but everyone around him offered perspectives from their respective expertise. His colleagues, “help[ed] get rid of background noise. When you work in a specialized field, [you] lose the big picture. Nevertheless, at the YCVRC, you have the big picture thanks to the outstanding combination of expertise covering from molecular biologists to clinicians.”

In 2016, Bártulos-Encinas transitioned from academia to industry, moving to the Netherlands to work at Ncardia (formerly Pluriomics). Back when he first joined, Pluriomics was an iPS production company that specialized in growing myocytes in order to analyze the toxicity of various drugs. However, as they made their manufacturing systems more efficient, the company was able to produce batches of around 11 billion cardiomyocytes in about six weeks. This meant they could provide resources for other labs and biotech companies, prompting a shift into the service industry. One common reason drug developers will work with them is for rapid screening of cancer treatments which often have some cardiotoxicity. Rather than testing on animal models or proceeding straight to clinical trials, using iPS is a cheaper, safer, and faster alternative.

Currently, Bártulos-Encinas is working at NecstGen a contract development and manufacturing organization or CDMO company specializing in gene and cell therapies. His new company deals with a myriad of projects, from taking cell therapies developed at universities and small enterprises, to refining and manufacturing cells, and then providing them to clinics to be used in trials.

Though this line of work is fundamentally very different from academic research, the collaborative mindset Bártulos-Encinas had developed still proves to be necessary. Now, however, his communication skills are put to use between different departments in the company as opposed to between scientists. This change brings a new set of challenges: how do you explain to scientists why certain projects cannot be pursued or how do you explain to a CEO why an experiment cannot be expedited? For Bártulos-Encinas, the bridge is constructed through patience and strong bidirectional communication.

“When you work in academia, you work in your niche and you speak a language, the language of science, and everyone understands the same language. When you work in industry, people don’t speak the same language. You need to put in extra effort to make yourself understandable,” he said.

Reflecting on his time in New Haven, aside from the weather, he misses the casual culture of conversation and companionship. “I miss discussing just for the sake of discussion,” he said, “And any time in New Haven you can find someone to have dinner with.” But working in the Netherlands, Bártulos-Encinas is motivated by the important discoveries he continues to make and the impact they have on clinical trials and the people they treat.

Submitted by Elisabeth Reitman on November 14, 2022