Flagship names ex-Roche SVP as CEO of cancer startup Cygnal

Cygnal Therapeutics has named Pearl Huang as CEO. The ex-Roche senior vice president and Beigene founder will lead the Flagship Pioneering startup as it builds a pipeline of cancer drugs targeting the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

Having spent the past two years in Flagship Labs’ foundry, Cygnal is now ready to push on with the task of developing drugs that hit PNS targets it thinks play a role in cancer and other diseases. These targets are neuronal, but, following the exoneural biology concept that the PNS affects non-neuronal processes, Cygnal has linked them to the progression of diseases seemingly unrelated to neurology.

With targets identified and a biology platform in place, Cygnal has made a key early hire. Flagship Pioneering partner Avak Kahvejian guided Cygnal up to this point but will now make way for Huang, an ex-Roche executive who has decades of experience in cancer research.

Huang worked as SVP and head of therapeutic modalities at Roche until September when, after almost four years at the company, she left. Before joining Roche, Huang served as global head of discovery academic partnerships at GlaxoSmithKline and, prior to that, co-founded Beigene and held the acting CSO role as it was getting off the ground around the start of the decade. 

With earlier stints working on oncology discovery and development at Merck and GSK also on her résumé, Huang is well placed to evaluate promising cancer programs. And Huang likes what she sees at Cygnal.

“Cygnal has uncovered one of the most exciting new approaches to cancer therapeutics that I have seen in almost 30 years in the industry,” Huang said in a statement. “[Its] scientists have uncovered paradigm-shifting biological insights and are now applying them to the development of entirely novel therapies.”

In the long term, those insights could lead to drugs targeting inflammation and autoimmune diseases, but Cygnal is focusing its early efforts on cancer. Cygnal is yet to disclose a financing round to support this work but, given the involvement of Flagship, it has access to deep pockets. 

Huang is also joining Flagship as a venture partner.