Flagship Pioneering Launches Cygnal Therapeutics


Cygnal Therapeutics, a Flagship Pioneering company, emerged from stealth mode today with $65 million and a focus on developing treatments for cancer and inflammatory diseases based on exoneural biology and the peripheral nervous system.

The new company, based in Cambridge, Mass., is helmed by Roche veteran Pearl Huang and currently has 41 employees with plans to hit 60 by the end of the year. The company currently has two programs in development and more could be possible by the end of the year, the company said. Cygnal was founded in 2017 based on discoveries made in the field of exoneural biology, which is a new understanding of how nerves and neural signaling drive human health and disease. The peripheral nervous system (PNS) communicates the body’s sense of touch and pain, as well as conveys movement and mood. Previously, research has shown that PNS is active in health and disease but has been overlooked in favor of the brain and spine, the traditional focus of neurobiology, the company said.

But, Cygnal was born when Flagship began seeking answers to questions of whether or not peripheral nerves are independent biological actors as opposed to “mere conduits” of the central nervous system. Furthermore, Flagship began to query whether or not important neural signals in disease come from the PNS as opposed to the brain.

Flagship Pioneer Chief Executive Officer and Cygnal Co-Founder Noubar Afeyan said in a statement that the exploration into the role of nerves in health and disease yielded “far-reaching and powerful connections.” Cygnal, Afeyan said, was created to develop drugs on these insights and “bring relief to patients in need with unprecedented exoneural medicines.”

While peripheral nerves have always been there, Huang told BioSpace that it’s only been in recent years that researchers have been able to get a clear image of peripheral nerves and see what the neurons are doing. Technology provides a glimpse into the “character, abundance, and architecture of nerves in disease tissues,” Huang said.

“We've identified multiple non-overlapping signals exchanged between distinct neural subtypes and disease tissues. Furthermore, our findings also tell us that disease tissue can adopt the ‘language of the neurons’ themselves, ostensibly to speak back to signals emanating from the peripheral nerve network,” Huang said. “There is no question in my mind that this is fundamental human biology—and because it’s fundamental, there is commensurate broad opportunity.”

While Cygnal will begin by aiming its Exoneural Medicines Platform at cancer and inflammatory disease, Huang said its technology can be applied to any disease setting. Huang said the company is not ready to disclose particular targets for its research but assured BioSpace that the company has “seen incredible activity across a range of different cancer types.” Without disclosing any specifics, Huang said the company started two drug discovery and development programs this year and there is a possibility more could be started. Future opportunities will be in proliferative diseases, wound healing, metabolism, and neurology, she said.

“We have many opportunities and have chosen our first projects with an eye towards delivering to patients as quickly as possible,” Huang said.

The company’s drug platform includes six core components -- proprietary imaging and co-culture technologies, neural cell control, neural functional genomics, neural pathway bioinformatics, and a custom neuro-pharmacopeia. Using those components, the platform enables the company to identify key exoneural pathways implicated in numerous disease settings and to create drugs. So far, Cygnal has filed more than 40 patents in cancer and inflammation.

Huang expressed excitement about the future for Cygnal Therapeutics. Through the end of 2019 and into 2020, she said the company’s goal is to build out its pipeline and advance its programs. The company also has a longer-term goal is opening new disease areas for research, she said.

“Collectively, our leadership team has over 80 years of successful discovery biology and drug development experience, and we look forward to building this company’s pipeline and platform together, in parallel, to maximize value for patients and our investors,” Huang said.

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