Persistently Doing Things Differently
Halfway through undergrad, Anthony Caggiano, vice president
of research and development at Acorda Therapeutics, was walking around the University of
Virginia thinking that he needed to get a job. In a hallway, he noticed an announcement about a
National Science Foundation summer research fellowship, which paid undergrads to do research in
a lab. That experience indirectly led Caggiano to where he is today.
Anthony Caggiano, Vice President of Research
and Development, Acorda Therapeutics
Caggiano liked the lab, and when it came time to graduate, he
considered applying to graduate school in science, or maybe going to medical school. But then he
found a program that offered both—a federally funded Medical Scientist Training Program at
the University of Chicago. The program paid for medical school, and also offered a stipend for
students to live on. Caggiano was accepted, picked up a PhD in neuroscience, and spent the last
year of medical school going through radiology rotations.
But he didn't understand why every medical institution
had it's own team of radiologists. "I looked around and thought it was silly that all
of these people were reading films," says Caggiano. With a radiologist friend, Caggiano
started a business—Remote Diagnostic Imaging—that assembled a staff of highly
trained radiologists from top institutions to essentially freelance radiological services.
"We were coordinating image distribution and reading services for hospitals that were in
remote locations, or in cities that could not staff sufficient radiologists," says
Caggiano. Excited by the business, and presented with a clear problem to solve, Caggiano decided
not to attend Cornell, where he'd been accepted into a radiology residency.
Unfortunately, the company fizzled. "We never really got
over the initial hump, to get fully going, and I knew I needed to find a job that paid and had
benefits." Acorda Therapeutics was doing work in neurological injury, which was a match
with Caggiano's PhD studies. Caggiano thought he could use his medical and scientific
training at Acorda, and was "interested in the idea of being in a company, having tried to
start one myself." He's been climbing the corporate ladder at Acorda ever since, from
bench scientist to VP.
Persistence is a critical attribute for anyone working in
R&D. Caggiano says he likes to "try and do things that haven't been done, and that
seem to be difficult or impossible," which requires "a high tolerance for listening to
a lot of people saying, 'This isn't going to work. That isn't going to
work,'" he says. "And you have to be able to tolerate failure over and over and
over again because, most of the time, things fail." But persistence is a double-edged
sword, because "you have the responsibility to identify, as soon as you can, when things
shouldn't be pursued so you don't waste money on them." But on the other hand,
"if nobody champions a project, then it'll never go anywhere," says Caggiano.
Acorda licensed two growth factor drug candidates from CeNeS
plc in 2002, as potential MS therapies, but then external research started to build around the
Glial Growth Factor 2's (GGF2) heart protective capabilities (GGF2 has potential in
neurological disease as well). Acorda was exclusively dedicated to neurological disorders at the
time, so Caggiano conducted research outside of the company, in a lab with the correct models
for assessing the drug in heart failure. The results were "very encouraging," and
Caggiano went back and "made the case here at Acorda, 15 times over and over, that this is
a massive opportunity." Enrollment has now begun for a second Phase I studies of GGF2, giving
Acorda a potential to partner, or commercialize a cardiovascular product for the first time.
Caggiano stays busy with two young and athletic
daughters—he coaches his youngest daughter's lacrosse team—and he's also
into woodworking. Caggiano built his family's dining room furniture, but he says
that's slowed down some with his kids and other responsibilities. Caggiano says his
work-related stress levels are relatively low, because the company is "very supportive of
our programs, from the earliest to the latest," and "everyone is driving toward the
same goals." What keeps Caggiano up at night is the chance a drug toxicity might harm a
patient. "At any point, we could identify toxicities that are intolerable, and all the
money and time we've put in would be wasted." But even when things don't work
out, "it really helps to let you sleep, knowing everyone's behind it, and that
we're all trying to get to the same place."