Belen Carrillo-Rivas, D.Phil. Pfizer Lead, Global Clinical Submission Quality

"We have a saying in Spain: 'Look at the sky with your feet on the ground'. This saying was always an important reminder for me to dream and think big (while remaining realistic) and have faith in myself. For that reason, I never let my fears hold me back.”
Belen Carrillo-Rivas

Driven by her passion in human genetics and desire to make a transformative impact in patients' lives, Carrillo-Rivas discovered her true calling within drug development early on.

It was following a six month internship at Baxter when Carrillo-Rivas realized she wanted to dedicate her life's mission to bringing new medicines to patients. Committed and dedicated to pursuing her vision, Carrillo-Rivas recognized the need to first continue her studies in human genetics.

“I loved the field of human genetics, yet was aware that the research opportunities in Spain were few”, explained Carrillo-Rivas. As a young college graduate in Spain, Carrillo-Rivas recognized an opportunity in the Human Genome Project. She convinced her parents to buy her a plane ticket to England and then proceeded to pack her bags and show up without notice in Dr. Duncan Campbell’s office at the University of Oxford. Without reservation or hesitation, she spoke with refreshing honesty and enthusiasm, “I would love for you to be my PhD thesis advisor." Recognizing her raw passion, potential, and uncurbed enthusiasm, Dr. Campbell encouraged Carrillo-Rivas to apply to Oxford. It was clear she would still need to obtain her own funding, so while waiting for annual grant deadlines to approach, she continued with her studies, obtaining her master’s degree in molecular biology. It wasn't long before she landed a full scholarship funded by the Spanish government that  allowed her to pursue her PhD at St. John’s College in Oxford. 

When recalling her time at Oxford, Carrillo-Rivas reminisces with a sparkle in her eyes. Living in the ancient ‘city university’ filled with grand, yellow-colored buildings with pointed arches and spires was not only exciting but also inspiring. Walking down High Street, rowing for the St. John’s team, and hanging out in her College common area were just a few of the many highlights of Carrillo-Rivas’s graduate student experience. It was at St. John’s where she met one of her most influential role models: her college mentor. “He taught me how to be a strong leader”, she said. Finding a mentor you can both trust and emulate is a big advantage to guiding you along your journey.

After obtaining her Ph.D. at Oxford, Carrillo-Rivas moved across the pond to continue her scientific education at Harvard Medical School where she completed her post-doctoral work, building to a strong foundation in scientific knowledge that would ground her later impactful work in biotech and pharma.

 “I recommend finding a mentor and building your network as soon as possible.”


SYNAPSE: How did you transition from academia to industry?

CARRILLO-RIVAS: Recognizing an opportunity to apply my scientific expertise to the practical world of drug development, I knew it was time to make the jump to industry. My advisor at Harvard was very disappointed when I told him I wanted to go into industry. He felt like I was leaving science but unswayed, I stayed strong in what I felt was the right path for me at that time. I applied to several jobs in biotech and pharma, made my own business cards, and began expanding my network. After making a list of companies in the genetic and inflammatory disease spaces (two fields I was particularly interested in), I reached out to a Harvard colleague who was working for one of them. He kindly gave me a reference and soon after I got my first job in industry. From this experience, I learned you can never underestimate the power of building your network as soon as possible and establishing good relationships with colleagues.

“We are living in the epicenter of a revolution in drug development. The lines dividing science and medicine are becoming virtually indistinguishable. Nowadays, the intersection between the two fields is a necessity in order to deliver high-quality therapies to patients.” 

SYNAPSE: Tell us about your career in biotech and big pharma.

CARRILLO-RIVAS: My career transitioning from academia to industry took root when I was one of the first employees of a small biotech startup, Enanta Pharmaceuticals. 

Having had rigorous scientific training, I knew I was meant to apply my skills to make a broader impact in the drug development industry. I was eager to apply my scientific knowledge to uncover disease mechanisms and solve unmet needs in patient populations.

I learned so much from the fast-paced environment at Enanta. You have to be able to “wear many hats” and adjust quickly to change and the company needs. There, my boss, head of R&D, handed me business-heavy responsibilities that included fundraising and meeting regularly with the Board of Directors. I walked away from that experience with a deep understanding of the full journey of a drug from the bench to the clinic. But I knew there was more to learn and further growing for me to do in this field.

My experience in biotech led me to big pharma in 2010. I joined Pfizer because I saw the opportunity to make a transformational impact in others’ lives.

Pfizer recognized Carrillo-Rivas' scientific talent, drug development expertise, and natural business acumen and knew they had to hire her. An emerging leader at Pfizer, Carrillo-Rivas made a big splash in different parts of the organization.

CARRILLO-RIVAS: It was at Pfizer, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, that I had the opportunity to truly learn the ins and outs of the drug development industry business. Instead of remaining in my comfort zone, I pushed myself to gain exposure to various aspects of the drug development value chain. From R&D to clinical development to the commercial end, there was always something more to learn. I knew I could better deliver medicines to patients knowing and experiencing the beginning-to-end spectrum of a drug's path from R&D to market.

Ideally, it's about making use of your knowledge to make an impact on society and gain from the experience given your passions and interests. You have to remain open to the learning process and be relentless in your pursuit to identify opportunities that can get you to where you want to be. Once you have an idea, a vision of where you would like to be in 10 years, it's about identifying gaps you have in getting there by speaking to other people and doing whatever it takes to fill them.


Now, as the Lead for Global Clinical Submissions Quality (Worldwide Safety and Regulatory), Carrillo-Rivas is the ultimate decision maker for the "Go/No go" of major global clinical submissions, accountable for the quality, accuracy, and consistency of clinical data to regulatory agencies across the Oncology, Gene Therapy and Rare Disease portfolios.

CARRILLO-RIVAS: I chose to work on the later stages of clinical development and regulatory filing to gain exposure to the full journey of a drug’s progression during the development cycle.

In my current position, my focus areas are oncology, gene therapy and rare diseases, the latter of which has been revolutionized with sequencing of the human genome. Of the 7,000 known rare diseases, only ~5% have an available treatment. Approximately 80% of these 7,000 rare diseases involve a genetic component. Precision medicine takes advantage of these genetic components to adapt treatments to those patients most likely to respond. However, it is a complex field because there is only a small number of patients for each disease and few physicians who can properly diagnose and treat each. Obtaining information relevant to drug discovery is a big challenge because diagnosis within such disease states is difficult. There is generally a lack of case history with these patients and very little prior research done on most rare diseases to use as a guide. This makes it very hard to plan and execute a clinical trial.

However, there’s an opportunity to bridge this gap by combining the best of early stage science and clinical medicine. I believe we are at the epicenter of a revolution in medicine. The lines dividing science and medicine are becoming indistinguishable, to the point where it seems difficult to differentiate between the two. Nowadays, the two fields working in tandem is a necessary component to delivering high-quality medicines to patients and with the application of new technologies and capabilities in precision medicine, the process of closing this gap can be further expedited.

Recognizing this paradigm shift within drug development, as Head of R&D Innovation Projects at Pfizer, Carrillo-Rivas took it upon herself to identify and drive promising innovative partnerships into Pfizer. 23andMe and MIT Synthetic Biology collaborations are two of such partnerships Carrillo-Rivas championed internally in efforts to better support Pfizer's clinical research activities and development programs.

“You want to be in the best possible position to realize the full potential of scientific breakthroughs by bringing together the best expertise, technologies and capabilities that can truly make a difference for patients. Pfizer is committed to bringing forward new treatments to transform patients' lives, and in order to do so, advances in emerging technologies like synthetic biology need to be supported. Such emerging technologies have the potential to rapidly accelerate and improve biotherapeutics drug discovery and development, from early-stage candidate discovery through product supply, which could bring more effective therapies to patients faster.  In our commitment to bringing forward new medicines to transform treatment of diseases by enhancing our understanding of the underlying biology of the disease, we hope to better support our clinical research activities and development programs through initiatives such as our collaboration with 23andMe.”

But Carrillo-Rivas recognized that new technologies weren’t the only asset Pfizer could leverage to innovate. Establishing collaborations with MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) and Sloan programs, Carrillo-Rivas sought to bring in fresh talent to partner with Pfizer colleagues. Graduate students in particular bring a unique skillset and know-how to the table. Empowering young talent with diverse experiences in academia provides us with fresh ideas to tackle different challenges.



CARRILLO-RIVAS: We need people who can think outside the box - such individuals are the most likely to help advance the pharmaceutical industry. The most successful people are those who can learn, evolve, and adapt tochanges in drug discovery landscape.



Despite working hard internally within Pfizer with little visibility directly within the public eye, BostInno, a source for all innovation news in the Boston area, flagged Carrillo-Rivas as a “50 on Fire” top innovation leader. Her efforts to impact the drug development space and executed successes within one of the largest pharmaceutical companies was justifiably identified and acknowledged.


SYNAPSE: What advice do you have for graduate students in the life sciences who may pursue a career in industry?

CARRILLO-RIVAS: The trend of declining R&D productivity compels us to work more closely to share know-how and pool risk in order to deliver the next medicine to the patients with higher probabilities of success.  The time is now, more so than ever before, to create a broad, holistic eco-system fueled by collaboration among various stakeholders including pharma, academia, biotech, patient advocacy groups, payers, venture capitals, healthcare systems and novel technology. We all need to come together and be accountable for solving as each of us own a critical piece of the drug development puzzle. Graduate students are a vital part of this emerging ecosystem and should be confident in the impact they can make in the space. They bring unique knowledge and skills to the table. Having diverse experiences in academia is a great avenue for bringing in new ideas and tackling different problems with a fresh perspective. My advice to students would be to surround themselves with people who know more than they do so they can keep growing, learning, and expanding on their knowledge and skillsets. And to “look at the sky with your feet on the ground.”

Interview originally conducted on 12/13/16.

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