October 12, 2023

Above and Beyond: Bristol Myers Squibb San Diego Scientist Joins Gravity-Defying Research Mission Outlook

Top row, from left: Barbra “Bee” Pagarigan, senior scientist of protein homeostasis and structural biology at Bristol Myers Squibb in San Diego, is part of a team of researchers who recently launched their experiments into space; Bee poses with a patch from the International Space Station Lab (ISS) noting the recent mission her experiment was on. Bottom row, from left: An image of protein crystals captured aboard the ISS; Bee is a member of the San Diego Astronomy Association and pictured at the Cruzen Observatory in Tierra del Sol; observing the moon with one of her telescopes at her cabin in Big Bear with her dog, Griffon.

By Bristol Myers Squibb

Barbra Pagarigan, who goes by Bee, says the lab is her playground. “The people, the gadgets you work with, and then the actual protein crystals are really awesome,” Pagarigan said. “It’s like no other job.”

Pagarigan is senior scientist of protein homeostasis and structural biology at Bristol Myers Squibb in San Diego and is part of a team of researchers who recently launched their experiments into space as part of ongoing research to identify the ideal physical conditions that promote high-quality protein crystals to form in microgravity.

Pagarigan has been studying protein crystallization at the Bristol Myers Squibb San Diego site for nearly two decades, where her discovery work has led to insights that give researchers a unique advantage when it comes to identifying novel targets and optimizing compounds. Scientists can image the lab-grown crystals using a technique known as crystallography to help determine a protein’s structure. The more scientists know about a protein’s structure, the more informed steps they can take toward designing drugs that can interact with it.

“When studying potential new drugs, one of the challenges is understanding how the target proteins interact with the molecules we hope to be drugs,” Pagarigan said. “Crystallography and sophisticated computer programs enable us to take a three-dimensional picture of a crystallized protein so that chemists can find out how the protein works in the body and design compounds that can turn on or off its function.”

The case for going into space

In the San Diego lab, Pagarigan is surrounded by robots that help her run thousands of experiments each week to prompt a handful of proteins to crystallize. But it’s not an exact science. Crystallizing a protein can be tricky and requires a manipulation of extremely specific conditions which include pH, salt concentration and temperature. The quality and size of the crystals are dictated by these conditions, and many proteins don’t crystallize well on Earth.

Protein crystals grown in microgravity on the other hand are often larger and more uniform, which makes them better candidates for collecting data. Starting in 2018, the team at Bristol Myers Squibb set out to send their experiments to the International Space National Laboratory (ISSNL) as part of a research project to better understand the unique set of conditions that promote protein crystallization in space.

When passion and profession become one

Bristol Myers Squibb saw its first protein experiments take off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida and travel to the ISSNL in 2020, where partner astronauts replicated their experiments and studied crystal growth over the course of a monthlong mission. When Pagarigan learned of efforts to launch a second mission in 2023, she jumped at the opportunity to combine her professional and personal interests.

“I got into astronomy because I would find myself staring up at the night sky wondering what was out there. The scientist in me got a telescope to find out,” Pagarigan said.

Today, she enjoys all the activities the local community has to offer as a full-fledged enthusiast and board member for the San Diego Astronomy Club.

“Contributing to the most recent space program mission brought two of my passions together in a really cool way,” Pagarigan said. “It’s one of the advantages of working at a company that fosters innovation and creative approaches that you can find opportunities like this.”

A career of service in science

For Pagarigan, working in the life sciences has always been personal: the loss of her mother to cancer when she was in college guided her toward a career of service in science.

“I felt so helpless then, so as an adult, I want to do what I can to play a part in kids not having to deal with losing a parent to terrible diseases such as cancer,” Pagarigan said.

She said it was awe-inspiring to watch as a Falcon 9 rocket carried the team’s experiments into space this March and consider what their work could mean for patients. Now, the next step is back on Earth. The latest batch of experiments have returned from the ISSNL, and the team is in the process of analyzing them to determine if the crystallization was successful and how their insights can be applied to drug development and manufacturing.