Cygnal's Pearl Huang recruits former Merck colleague John Wagner to realize broad exoneural vision in the clinic
Long before her current life as CEO of Flagship startup Cygnal, Pearl Huang had the title of integrator at Merck’s oncology franchise.
Tasked with overseeing the transition of experimental drugs from preclinical to early clinical, she worked closely with John Wagner — an expert in clinical pharmacology — to faciliate early development and biomarker research around cancer programs.
Now, as Cygnal itself is on the verge of the clinic, she’s reuniting with Wagner to steer into the clinic a different class of cancer drugs: ones targeting the role of the peripheral nervous system in cancer pathogensis.
Wagner, who logged some years at Takeda after leaving Merck, jumps from Foresite Capital to become Cygnal’s first-ever CMO. Alongside cancer, inflammation will be a core initial focus for the new clinical development team he’s building out.
“Peripheral nerves touch every organ. They touch every tissue. And nearly every organ can get cancer,” Huang told Endpoints News ahead of the announcement, scheduled for Wednesday morning. “We were looking for a universal fundamental signal that would have broad applicability. And so it made sense to start in oncology.”
Neither Wagner or Huang — who kept in touch after working together on early cancer programs at Merck — are ready to discuss details. So targets, candidates and timelines will have to wait until a later time.
What they are much more eager to discuss is the new era of neurobiology that Cygnal is tapping into. Even though indications of how nerves talk to other cells date back even before Wagner’s PhD days studying neurobiology, scientists are now able to rigorously explore those connections and their impact on a variety of diseases.
Cygnal brought to the table a suite of six decoding tools, ranging from neuroimaging and chemical genetics to genetic targets screening and a CNS-focused molecule library.
Having led translational research and early clinical at Takeda and examined a number of biotech startups more recently at Foresite Capital, Wagner saw it as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“It’s amazing how far the science has come,” he said. “The exoneural biology and the opening up of being able to study interactions between neurons and the rest of the tissues and cells of the body — it’s just fantastic.”
With his appointment, Cygnal is now at 51 staffers, leaving plenty of room for growth in its Cambridge, MA office built for 80.
Wagner also joins as Huang (employee #23) beefs up the C-suite, having recruited Biogen alum Elaine Caughey as CBO late last year.