With $65M, Cygnal Tunes In to Nerve Signals for Drug-Making Clues

Xconomy Boston — 

The peripheral nervous system traverses the body, connecting the brain and spinal cord to distant organs and limbs similar to the way a fiber optic network connects an Internet provider to a computer user at a far-flung home. But peripheral nerves also communicate with disease cells, according to Cygnal Therapeutics CEO Pearl Huang. Understanding this dialogue is key to unlocking a new approach to treating disease, she says.

Cambridge, MA-based Cygnal has spent the past two years studying the peripheral nervous system and its back-and-forth communication with disease cells. Today, the biotech startup is emerging from the labs of Cambridge venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering and revealing $65 million in financing along with a peek at its approach to understanding peripheral nerves.

“They’ve always been there, they’ve always been signaling,” Huang says. “It’s just been a missing component [in research].”

Most of the research about the roles of nerves in disease has centered on the brain and the spinal cord—the central nervous system. But Huang says peripheral nerves also play key roles in disease. She points to cancer as an example. A tumor is surrounded by peripheral nerves, and the interactions between nerves and tumors are one of the ways that cancer spreads. Cygnal has developed technology that allows the company to model and visualize this process and better understand it. Given Cygnal’s focus outside of traditional neurobiology, Flagship coined a new term for the research: exoneural biology.

Cygnal’s drugs will be small molecules and biological compounds, Huang says. The drugs would work by disrupting signals coming from the nerves or the tumor cell. Cancer is not the only target for Cygnal. Huang says her company’s approach could also potentially address autoimmune conditions, inflammation, metabolism, and fibrosis. She says regenerative medicine is another potential therapeutic area for her company.

It’s still early days for Cygnal. The company has two potential cancer drugs and one for inflammation. Huang declined to say what those drugs are targeting, or project a timeline for the preclinical development of those programs. In the coming year, Huang says she hopes to add a new disease area, but declined to specify which one. Cygnal is also staying tight-lipped about who its investors are or what stage of fundraising the company has reached. All Huang would say is that the majority of the company’s financing has come from Flagship.

Photo by Flickr user Robbie Shade via Creative Commons license