Cancer cells, it’s well known, can wrap around nerves in the human body. But do nerves transmit signals that somehow make cancer spread? And, if so, can scientists create drugs to put the brake on that?
Those are among the questions that researchers at a new Cambridge biotech are exploring. The startup, Cygnal Therapeutics, is officially emerging from “stealth mode” on Tuesday, two years after it was founded by Flagship Pioneering, the venture capital firm in the same city.
With $65 million from Flagship and other unidentified investors, Cygnal is focusing on a scientific field it calls “exoneural biology.” That specialty, say executives and founders of the Vassar Street biotech, could hold clues for the treatment of cancer, inflammatory diseases, and other disorders.
“I’m super excited about it,” said Pearl S. Huang, a veteran of pharmaceutical giants who joined Cygnal as CEO in January. Huang, a 1980 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, moved to Massachusetts from Basel, Switzerland, where she was Roche’s senior vice president and global head of therapeutic modalities.
Research into the human nervous system, Cygnal executives say, has traditionally focused on the brain and the spinal cord — the central nervous system. The peripheral nervous system, which relays information from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body — from vital organs to skin — has gotten relatively short shrift.
In recent years, Flagship scientists have wondered: What if peripheral nerves are more than mere conduits of the central nervous system’s commands? What if they release compounds that trigger diseases or cause them to spread? What if the most important neural signals in disease come not from the brain but from the peripheral nerves?
Using new technology to examine how neurons, tumors, and other cells interact, Flagship researchers concluded the peripheral nerves play an important, if overlooked, role in cancer, gut inflammation, and other disorders.
“We immediately saw that the same biological mechanisms that give us sensation and drive our mood are at the center of human health and disease,” said Avak Kahvejian, a Flagship partner and cofounder of Cygnal.
“With the advent of advanced tools and technologies, we recognized that this powerful, underlying biology could become a foundation for a new class of medicines.”
Another Cygnal cofounder, Noubar Afeyan, who started Flagship and serves as its CEO, said medicine has for too long “relegated these nerves to an auxiliary status.” Cygnal executives believe they may play a starring role.
The startup has 41 employees, said Huang, who was the 23rd hire. Cygnal has begun drug development programs in cancer and inflammation and filed more than 40 patents.
While Cygnal bills itself as the first company to try to develop drugs in exoneural biology, the field is generating interest among other scientists, from the United States to Israel to Australia.
Just last month, Science, the peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published an article titled “War of Nerves,” with the subhead “How the body’s nerves become accomplices in the spread of cancer.”
The article mentioned several clinical trials testing whether blocking nerve signaling slows the spread of tumors. It also said that some scientists are exploring a controversial link between chronic stress and cancer progression.
Cygnal’s CEO, Huang, is a veteran of several pharmaceutical giants, including Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, and in 2010 founded BeiGene, a Chinese drug company that focuses on developing cancer medicines.
She said she had hundreds of experimental medicines into clinical trials, a few of which won approval as cancer treatments, including Mekinist and Tafinlar, both now sold by Novartis.
“When I heard about Cygnal, I was very intrigued,” said Huang, who has a PhD in molecular biology from Princeton University. “It addressed such a fundamental gap that exists in our understanding of human physiology.”
Cygnal is one of more than 100 scientific ventures started by Flagship since the venture capital firm was founded in 2000. Flagship has raised over $3.3 billion in eight funds to spawn and nurture biotech, medical technology, and bio-agriculture businesses.