Pearl Huang. Cygnal

'We're ripe': Cyg­nal draws the cur­tain on Flag­ship's lat­est bet on ex­oneur­al bi­ol­o­gy — and $65M in cash

No mat­ter how many times one’s heard Flag­ship Pi­o­neer­ing’s ideation process de­scribed, there al­ways seems to be an el­e­ment of evo­lu­tion­ary won­der: bold, new con­cepts that are “sev­er­al stan­dard de­vi­a­tions away from what is known,” put through a rig­or­ous vet­ting process first aimed at try­ing to kill the idea, and on­ly the fittest sur­vive.

Noubar Afeyan

That’s per­haps why Pearl Huang found its lat­est cre­ation, Cyg­nal Ther­a­peu­tics, and its fo­cus on the pe­riph­er­al ner­vous sys­tem “ir­re­sistibly at­trac­tive.” While Huang’s ap­point­ment as CEO back in Jan­u­ary was well-pub­li­cized, Cyg­nal is just spelling out the de­tails on its plat­form to­day, with $65 mil­lion — most­ly from Flag­ship — to boast.

Be­fore she de­cid­ed to jump from Roche to take on the role, Huang did her home­work on the field that Flag­ship is call­ing ex­oneur­al bi­ol­o­gy.

“When you look back through the lit­er­a­ture, for ex­am­ple, in can­cer bi­ol­o­gy, the pe­riph­er­al nerves were de­scribed to be a part of tu­mors in the late 1800s,” she said. “So the knowl­edge was al­ready out there.”

Avak Kah­jelian

But the gen­er­al pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem and the brain, as well as a lack of meth­ods to il­lu­mi­nate the roles at pe­riph­er­al nerves play in dis­eases, rel­e­gat­ed the PNS to a wiring di­a­gram in charge of ex­e­cut­ing or­ders in many sci­en­tists minds. It wasn’t un­til bet­ter imag­ing tech­niques came around in re­cent years that they could see just how ex­ten­sive that sys­tem is in the body and in mul­ti­ple dis­ease states. And it’s al­so what at­tract­ed Flag­ship’s Noubar Afeyan, Avak Kahve­jian and Jor­di Ma­ta Fink to launch the ven­ture.

“We see that the pe­riph­er­al ner­vous sys­tem it branch­es and goes as deeply in­to tis­sue as your vas­cu­lar sys­tem,” she said. And through Cyg­nal’s work, “we can see that non-neur­al cells and tis­sues in the dis­ease state are ac­tu­al­ly coopt­ing the lan­guage of the neu­rons. They are now ex­press­ing neur­al genes and ac­ti­vat­ing neur­al path­ways but they are non-neur­al in ori­gin them­selves.”

There are six com­po­nents in Cyg­nal’s ef­fort to de­code the role the PNS plays in dis­eases and how drug hunters can use it to their ad­van­tage:

  1. Neu­roimag­ing
  2. Cul­ture tech­nolo­gies to test re­duc­tion­ist neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy ideas where “we grow dis­ease tis­sue / cell types in the pres­ence of pri­ma­ry neu­rons to dis­sect the sig­nal­ing”
  3. Chem­i­cal ge­net­ics
  4. Iden­ti­fy causal­i­ty for a group of 2,000 ge­net­ic tar­gets dubbed the “neu­rome,” via CRISPR-Cas9
  5. Bioin­for­mat­ics plat­form fo­cused on neur­al sig­nals and neur­al path­ways
  6. A neu­rophar­ma­copia with 1,000 mol­e­cules de­signed to treat CNS dis­or­ders
Jor­di Ma­ta Fink

“Right now in this place in time, we’re the on­ly peo­ple — the on­ly com­mer­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion on the plan­et that can take those six tech­nolo­gies, put them to­geth­er, throw one ques­tion in­to that plat­form, get six dif­fer­ent an­swers and then con­nect the dots be­tween those an­swers to get nov­el in­sights in­to bi­ol­o­gy,” Huang said.

That will, in turn, lead to the dis­cov­ery of new small and large mol­e­cules — ad­mit­ted­ly tra­di­tion­al modal­i­ties that Cyg­nal be­lieves will do the job. With 41 staffers on hand (and a plan to ex­pand the of­fice to ac­com­mo­date 80), the goal is to nom­i­nate two pro­grams for de­vel­op­ment this year, most like­ly for can­cer and in­flam­ma­tion. But down the line, Huang can see plug­ging in any dis­ease from fi­bro­sis and en­dometrio­sis to wound heal­ing and obe­si­ty in­to their plat­form and yield­ing new drugs.

So why come out of stealth mode now?

“It’s kind of over­due, don’t you think?” Huang said. “It’s just time. We’re ripe.”

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis' gene ther­a­py group? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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Af­ter sell­ing to Genen­tech, the old Je­cure team is back at an RNA-fo­cused start­up — and more en­thu­si­as­tic than ever

When Genentech swooped in to buy NASH-focused Jecure Therapeutics back in 2018, a handful of the startup’s executives weren’t quite ready to disperse.

It had been just three years since Jecure launched with a preclinical portfolio of NLRP3 inhibitors — and the takeover came sooner than anyone, including CEO Jeff Stafford, had expected. So he got talking with James Veal and Gretchen Bain, two serial entrepreneurs in charge of Jecure’s R&D.

Rafaèle Tordjman (Jeito Capital)

Con­ti­nu­ity and di­ver­si­ty: Rafaèle Tord­j­man's women-led VC firm tops out first fund at $630M

For a first-time fund, Jeito Capital talks a lot about continuity.

Rafaèle Tordjman had spotlighted that concept ever since she started building the firm in 2018, promising to go the extra mile(s) with biotech entrepreneurs while pushing them to reach patients faster.

Coincidentally, the lack of continuity was one of the sore spots listed in a report about the European healthcare sector published that same year by the European Investment Bank — whose fund is one of the LPs, alongside the American pension fund Teacher Retirement System of Texas and Singapore’s Temasek, to help Jeito close its first fund at $630 million (€534 million). As previously reported, Sanofi had chimed in €50 million, marking its first investment in a French life sciences fund.

When ef­fi­ca­cy is bor­der­line: FDA needs to get more con­sis­tent on close-call drug ap­provals, agency-fund­ed re­search finds

In the exceedingly rare instances in which clinical efficacy is the only barrier to a new drug’s approval, new FDA-funded research from FDA and Stanford found that the agency does not have a consistent standard for defining “substantial evidence” when flexible criteria are used for an approval.

The research comes as the FDA is at a crossroads with its expedited-review pathways. The accelerated approval pathway is under fire as the agency recently signed off on a controversial new Alzheimer’s drug, with little precedent to explain its decision. Meanwhile, top officials like Rick Pazdur have called for a major push to simplify and clarify all of the various expedited pathways, which have grown to be must-haves for sponsors of nearly every newly approved drug.

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Jay Bradner (Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News)

Div­ing deep­er in­to in­her­it­ed reti­nal dis­or­ders, No­var­tis gob­bles up an­oth­er bite-sized op­to­ge­net­ics biotech

Right about a year ago, a Novartis team led by Jay Bradner and Cynthia Grosskreutz at NIBR swooped in to scoop up a Cambridge, MA-based opthalmology gene therapy company called Vedere. Their focus was on a specific market niche: inherited retinal dystrophies that include a wide range of genetic retinal disorders marked by the loss of photoreceptor cells and progressive vision loss.

But that was just the first deal that whet their appetite.

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