The Hillsboro High School and Tabor College graduate has lived and worked in several states, and travels frequently around the U.S. and to other countries as an ambassador in the field of stem-cell therapy.
Beyond geography, Bartel also has reached places within her profession that few achieve.
Recently, she was ranked 20th on a list of the “Top 50 most influential people on stem cells today” released by Total BioPharma, a network for professionals involved in the entire life science and pharmaceutical value chain.
“I was surprised,” Bartel said of the honor.
“First of all, it just means I’ve been around for a long time,” joked the 54-year-old from her home in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The stem cell and cell-therapy group is a very, very small world. We all know each other.”
In fact, Bartel estimates only 10 to 15 people in the world do what she does, which is to research and develop stem-cell therapies that can be approved by the Federal Drug Administration to repair or rejuvenate organs and limbs of patients with degenerative conditions such as diabetes and dilated cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart).
“I never really liked basic research just for the expansion of human knowledge,” Bartel said. “I’ve always done more applied stuff. For me, it’s making it through (the regulatory stage) and getting it to patients.”
Bartel’s career pilgrimage began in the science classes taught at HHS by Paul Jantzen, now retired. As a high school senior, she took her first science course at Tabor and eventually graduated with degrees in both chemistry and biology.
Upon the advice of her chemistry professor, Loren Neufeld, Bartel applied for graduate school and earned a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Kansas. Her specific focus was drug discovery, particularly antiviral agents.
From there, Bartel did a post-doctoral study through the medical school at the University of Michigan, focusing on anti-inflammatory drugs in the area of dermatology.
At the invitation of her lead professor at KU, she returned to Lawrence as a member of the research faculty for three years.
Bartel’s career took a significant turn when she traveled to the French Riviera as a presenter for a North American Treaty Organization conference on pharmaceutical applications for cells and tissues. She said she arrived at the meeting late and sat in the only available seat.
“I sat down next to a woman who had just started a company that was absolutely in lock step with my research at KU,” Bartel said. “She and I hung out for a week. By the end of it, she offered me a job.
“I was looking at either having to write grants to get funding or look for something else to do, so it was a good juncture.”
The job took Bartel to San Diego, Calif., which she still claims as her preferred place to live.
“What we did was use human skin cells to make artificial skin for burn victims,” she said. “I was the director of research there. The product we developed back in the early ’90s is still on the market.
“It was the second product put through the FDA that was a cell-based product,” she added. “It’s now $200 million a year and it’s being used to treat diabetic foot ulcers.”
In 2006, Bartel accepted her current job as chief scientific officer at Aastrom Biosciences Inc. in Ann Arbor.
In that role she overseas clinical trials for stem-cell therapies. The process begins with the removal of about three tablespoons of bone marrow from a patient’s lower back in a 15- to 20-minute nonsurgical procedure Bartel describes as “little more onerous than a blood draw.”
The bone marrow is shipped by Federal Express to Aastrom, where staff put it through a two-week “manufacturing” process.
“It actually grows up the regenerative cells in the bone marrow,” Bartel said. “Then we turn it around and give it back to the patient.”
One of the areas in which Bartel and her staff are currently working is the end stages of peripheral arterial disease.
“Everybody knows somebody who’s had a toe or a foot amputated as they get older,” she explained. “What we do is give these patients who are headed for an amputation 20 small injections from the top of the foot to just above the knee.
“It’s a one-time treatment, and it’s delayed amputations in our clinical trials by an average just shy of a year. Limb salvage is what we’re trying to do.”
The clinical trials limit them to a single treatment, she said. But the stem cells come from the patient, so there’s no threat of immune reaction or rejection.
“The idea would be to go back and do it on a yearly basis because the effects are pretty profound,” Bartel said.
Bartel is well aware that stem-cell research—primarily the use of embryonic stem cells—has generated public debate.
“Stem cells are not all embryonic stem cells,” she said. “Actually, very little work is being done on the commercial side in terms of product development. People are working on ways to avoid embryonic stem cells, both for ethical reasons as well as scientific.”
Bartel’s work is in the field of regenerative stem-cell research.
“Whenever you tell somebody you work with stem cells, they get so sort of twisted up sideways about it,” she said. “The idea is that people really do have a lot of regenerative power within them.
“Your cells are still there, but it’s like anything else when you get older—they’re a little more tired and there’s not as many of them. But there are ways to circumvent that by putting them in a culture and sort of rejuvenating them to some degree.
“It’s the ultimate in personalized medicine.”
Bartel said she finds fulfillment in the challenges of managing the science while at the same time dealing with regulatory issues and investors.
“There’s really three audiences for what we do,” she said. “It’s a bit of a chess game, actually.”
Working with the FDA can be particularly challenging.
“I learned early in my career that what makes sense to you scientifically bears little resemblance to what the FDA feels is appropriate,” she said. “Just because it’s good science doesn’t mean the drug is a good candidate to be approved.”
That said, Bartel recommends her field to high school and college students interested in science.
“There are a lot of opportunities out there, but you’re probably going to have to leave Hillsboro to do it,” she added.
“I’ve lived in seven states and have been all over the place. If you want to be a homebody, this is probably not the field. But there are lots of opportunities if you’re willing to go for it.”
Bartel said that’s been her approach through the years.
“I just followed my nose,” she said. “Being open to opportunity is a big thing. Who would have guessed I’d get my first industry job in some podunk place in France? Not me.”