BioSpace — Nocion Therapeutics launched in Cambridge, Mass. with a $27 million series A raise this week. The round was led by Canaan and F-Prime Capital Partners with participation from Partners Innovation Fund and BioInnovation Capital.
The company focuses on developing drugs to treat chronic cough, although their technology may have broader implications for itch, pain and inflammation. The company’s approach is based on its understanding of sensory neurons and how they respond to noxious stimuli.
“Our novel approach to selectively inhibiting neurons, resulting from a fundamental understanding of how the body responds to insult, will result in differentiated therapeutics addressing a host of unmet medical needs,” stated Richard Batycky, company chief executive officer. “A confluence of world-class founders and venture partners positions Nocion on the right path to have a meaningful impact on patients’ lives.”
The company’s scientific founders are Bruce Bean, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School (HMS); Clifford Woolf, Professor of Neurobiology and Director of the FM Kirby Neurobiology Center and Neurobiology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and HMS; and Bruce Levy, Chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Medical Director of the Brigham Lung Center, and the Parker B. Francis Professor of Medicine at HMS.
The foundations of the company were set in motion years ago when Bean and Woolf were discussing painkillers outside a now-defunct French restaurant in Boston. Older painkillers have side effects like numbness and immobility, and opiates were addictive.
“We just started talking about whether there was some novel way that we could selectively target pain-sensing neurons,” Bean told STAT.
Although the idea is to still treat pain, Nocion plans to focus first on chronic cough. Chronic cough hasn’t had a new drug since 1958, yet about 30 million people in the U.S. go to the doctor each year for it.
Peter Dicpinigaitis, director of the Montefiore Cough Center in New York, told STAT, “The unmet need is massive. What folks don’t realize, even doctors, is that cough is the single most common reason why people in the United States seek medical attention.”
Nocion’s approach is to develop a novel class of sodium channel inhibitors that prevent signaling in activated pain or itch neurons but ignore other neurons. The charged sodium channel inhibitors are called nocions.
“People may not realize that cough is the presentation of itch in the lung,” stated Levy. “Medications that could work for itch and pain, such as sodium channel inhibitors, have a history of being used in pulmonary indications in clinical practice, including in my own. The unique molecular approach to selectively silence activated nociceptors, developed by my co-founders, addresses many of the limitations of traditional therapeutics in the class that prevent broader utilization, and may prove to offer better effects for patients. We’re hopeful that these innovations may be applicable in many tissues and clinical conditions in the skin, lungs, GI tract, mouth, eye, and beyond to help alleviate patient suffering.”
There is some serendipity there as well. While Bean and Woolf were working on pain receptors and working on targeting nociceptors, a postdoctoral researcher in Woolf’s lab was friends with a researcher working under Levy. Levy has been focused on cough. As STAT writes, “When all three got together, they landed on the question that would unite their work and give Nocion its first focus: Is cough not just the itch of the airways?”
They began work in mice. By 2015, they were in talks with investors with F-Prime Capital and Canaan. By 2018, Nocion had five people in a work-sharing space in Cambridge called LabCentral. Batycky came on as CEO. He had previous co-founded a company that developed an inhalable medicine, Acorda Therapeutics.