Geert Cauwenbergh: A Life Science Leader’s Journey

(DGIwire) – All human lives are filled with twists and turns. The lives of leaders in the life science sector are no exception to this rule. A fascinating example is the life of Dr. Geert Cauwenbergh, who is currently President and CEO of RXi Pharmaceuticals. A recent profile in Life Science Leader recounted the highlights of his distinguished career, from playing an instrumental role at pharma giant Janssen Pharmaceutica to his later accomplishments in the world of smaller startups.

Cauwenbergh initially earned a master’s degree in marine microbiology, finding work at a Belgian chocolate factory interested in microbiology quality control. From there, he pivoted to the life sciences, joining the rapidly expanding Janssen Pharmaceutica in a sales role. Soon he was heading promotional efforts for the company’s antifungals. A chance encounter with company founder Dr. Paul Janssen led to Cauwenbergh’s entry into Janssen’s R&D arm. He helped win approval of the antifungal Nizoral and then went over to the company’s marketing arm to help sell it. But at Dr. Janssen’s urging, Cauwenbergh came back to R&D and took on responsibility for the company’s first anti-HIV drugs.

There have been many, many further twists and turns in Cauwenbergh’s subsequent career, as charted in the Life Science Leader article—including a move from Belgium to the U.S., where he initially found work at Johnson & Johnson’s New Jersey headquarters in dermatology research. It was in 2002 that he moved on from JNJ and founded a dermatology company called Barrier Therapeutics. Over the course of six years, Cauwenbergh raised $250M and took the company public. This resulted in the creation of a broad and deep pipeline of dermatology products. Barrier was later acquired by Stiefel Laboratories. By 2012, he was asked if he wanted to be considered for the role of CEO of a company that had been started by Nobel Laureate, Dr. Craig Mello.

That company, now known as RXi Pharmaceuticals, developed a proprietary platform based on RNA interference (RNAi), a naturally occurring process by which a particular “messenger RNA” can be destroyed before it is translated into protein. Since the overexpression of certain proteins plays a role in many disease conditions, the ability to inhibit gene expression with RNAi may provide a potentially powerful tool to treat a range of human diseases.

The company’s proprietary platform, termed sd-rxRNA®, are novel compounds that have built-in delivery properties and therefore do not require a delivery vehicle for local therapeutic applications. sd-rxRNA are chemically modified RNAi compounds with improved drug-like properties that are potent, stable and specific. RXi’s first clinical candidate, RXI-109, is an sd-rxRNA compound that targets connective tissue growth factor (CTGF), a critical regulator of fibrosis. A Phase 2 clinical trial is underway to evaluate RXI-109’s ability to reduce the formation of hypertrophic scars after scar revision surgery. RXI-109 has been shown to be safe and well-tolerated in all trials to date and preliminary results have indicated an improved scar appearance with RXI-109 treatment.

Additionally, RXi is conducting a Phase 1/2 clinical trial to evaluate treatment with RXI-109 in patients with subretinal scarring associated with advanced wet age-related macular degeneration. The company has also begun an immuno-oncology program, which will initially focus on cell-based therapies using sd-rxRNA compounds to treat cancer.

“My working life has shown the importance of learning new things every day and seeing new challenges at every turn,” says Dr. Cauwenbergh. “Maintaining a crucial balance between science and business, and keeping an open and prepared mind, has proven crucial to success, time and again.”

 

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