Q&A with New Afaxys Chief Medical Officer

Nov 22, 2021

Meet Dr. Kelly Culwell, Our New Chief Medical Officer

When Afaxys leaders decided that the company would pursue drug development as the next step in its evolution, they knew success depended on putting the right person in charge. They believe they’ve found her in Dr. Kelly Culwell.

A board-certified OB/GYN with more than 20 years specializing in women’s health and contraceptive research, Dr. Culwell joined Afaxys in July 2021 as Chief Medical Officer. Her responsibilities include overseeing the clinical development team – from clinical trials and  pharmacovigilance to regulatory and medical affairs.

Dr. Culwell’s career spans clinical, academic, public health and industry positions here in the U.S. and abroad. She most recently served as the Chief Medical Officer at a biosciences company, where she oversaw the FDA approval of the company’s first prescription contraceptive, successful completion of a Phase 2b/3 study and launch of a Phase 3 study for prevention of chlamydia and gonorrhea in women. Read her full bio here.

We sat down with Dr. Culwell to discuss her vision for Afaxys and her views on today’s reproductive and sexual healthcare landscape.

What makes you excited about your new role as Chief Medical Officer?

The most exciting thing is that this position combines my experience and my passions: my experience in drug development in working with pharma companies and my passion in public and global health to ensure access to new innovations, no matter a person’s geography, income or insurance status.

What are your goals for Afaxys?

In the short term, we are building the infrastructure to have a world-class drug development organization. That means bringing in the best people and identifying the right partners and products to pursue.

Longer term, we aim to develop products that can reach as many people as possible. We want to be the partner of choice for early developers who want to ensure their products are in the hands of a pharma company that will prioritize affordable access and look to us to see their innovations are distributed with equity.

You mentioned two critical terms: access and innovations. What do those mean at Afaxys?

For us, access is more than availability. It’s also about making sure people can afford their reproductive and sexual healthcare products. We have a unique business model, we grow our business while keeping prices as low as possible and by serving the many millions of patients who have traditionally been overlooked by the broader system. We also work closely with payers to advocate for these products to be covered benefits.

As for innovations, we are looking to bring forward products that fill an unmet need either because of price point or they’re in a neglected therapeutic area. For example, research in sexual and reproductive health has been far behind other areas because it hasn’t seen a lot of investment. We definitely think there is room for innovation in our core area of contraception. But beyond that, in sexually transmitted infections, or prevention of HIV, or traditionally overlooked areas of reproductive health like fibroids or endometriosis.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in reproductive and sexual health?

When I was doing my training in medical school as an Ob/Gyn, the piece I enjoyed the most wasn’t delivering babies or surgeries, it was being in the clinic with women and doing the preventive work so they can lead healthy and productive lives. It should be a basic right that all people have access to the health care information, products and services they need. Sexual and reproductive care should be a basic and routine part of creating a healthy society.

What are the greatest challenges today facing providers who care for patients seeking reproductive and sexual healthcare?

Some state laws act as barriers, not just to things like abortion care but also the provision of contraceptive services. Working with insurance companies can also be very cumbersome, determining what products patients can get and caring for people who can’t always afford them. When you have innovations, but can’t offer them to people in need, that’s pretty demoralizing for a health care provider.

You’ve lived and worked overseas. How is the healthcare landscape different abroad than in the U.S.?

Access is different. Let me give you an example. When I was living in London, my husband had to take my infant son to the ER because he had been throwing up a lot. He ended up being fine. After they were checked out by the hospital staff, my husband couldn’t find the place to  pay, because in England, there is no place to pay. That’s not how it works there. With nationalized health care, you don’t have to worry about those types of things. If we’d been in U.S., that visit might not have even been covered. People in Europe struggle to understand how a person can go bankrupt when they get sick.

In developing countries, providers can do so much with very little. I realized how much waste is in our U.S. healthcare system. When I came back to the U.S. and was starting up an outpatient clinic, I asked myself: What is actually required, as opposed to what we think is required? There’s an opportunity to cut out waste in our healthcare system and focus instead on delivering high-quality care.

On a personal note, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I have a husband,12-year-old son and three dogs, and I love spending time with them. We recently adopted a new dog. When you start a new job, you should definitely get a new dog [laughing]. I also love theater, music and finding new and interesting TV shows, especially comedies.

We split our time between southern California and Charleston. I really enjoy going to the beach in Charleston. The Atlantic Ocean is so nice and warm compared with the Pacific Ocean.