Nocion Therapeutics

While whole shoals of biotechs are clustered around single cancer targets, Nocion is away from the pack working on better ways to treat conditions such as cough and itch. (Nocion Therapeutics)

Bringing biotech innovation back to common conditions.

CEO: Rick Batycky, Ph.D.
Founded: 2017
Based: Waltham, Massachusetts
Clinical focus: Cough, itch, pain and inflammation

The scoop: Nocion Therapeutics persuaded major VCs to invest in a therapeutic backwater, pulling in a $27 million series A led by Canaan and F-Prime Capital Partners to fund R&D into cough, itch and other conditions. Armed with the money, Nocion is moving a cough candidate toward the clinic while working out the best way to advance other assets from its nociceptor-focused platform.

What makes Nocion fierce: Nocion is operating well outside of biotech’s therapeutic hot spots. While whole shoals of biotechs are clustered around single cancer targets, Nocion is away from the pack working on better ways to treat conditions such as cough and itch.

“When people look at the space, they're like, oh, wait a minute, it's lidocaine, it's bupivacaine, it's all generic. The question is, why is it all generic? And is it all generic because all the problems have been solved?” Nocion CEO Rick Batycky, Ph.D., said.

Batycky thinks plenty of problems remain; generics just dominate the field “because there's been no innovation over the last few decades.” Nocion plans to change that.

The startup grew out of research into nociceptor large pore channels. When exposed to stimuli, such as heat or cold, these pore channels open up.  Once open, the channels are agnostic to what they let into the cell, provided it is “somewhat large and charged,” Batycky said. The entry of a molecule into the cell leads to a signal alerting the brain of the stimuli, such as pain.

That gave the founders of Nocion an idea: When the pore is open, can we sneak a drug in there? That idea led Nocion to a model for treating a range of diseases involving nociceptor large pore channels.

“We take things that are already known to block sodium channels, let's say, and we charge them permanently so that they will only enter cells that have large pore channels that are open. So think of it like a Trojan horse way to sneak something in that we already know works. But the selectivity and specificity come about because these unique cells are only firing when they're undergoing insult,” Batycky said. 

Existing drugs, such as lidocaine, block nociceptor sodium channels, but they also have the same effect on motor neurons and mechanoreceptors, resulting in the temporary paralysis and numbness associated with pain-killing injections at the dentist. More importantly, lidocaine hits cardiac sodium channels, creating a toxicology risk, and is short-acting. Nocion aims to create topical drugs that only hit the targeted signaling pathway, when it is firing, and have a far longer duration of action.

Nocion is now nearing the nomination of a cough candidate to move into GLP toxicology studies. If everything goes well, Nocion thinks it could be in the clinic around one year from now. The series A will see Nocion through to that point and beyond, with Batycky aiming to use the money to collect data from patients with chronic cough. In parallel, Nocion is weighing up whether to raise more money to take a few other candidates forward itself or strike partnerships to unlock the value of its platform.

Whatever path Nocion chooses, Batycky thinks the company has a shot at moving the needle in some indications that have been innovation deserts in recent decades.

“We could make some real gains in terms of treating diseases that you can't treat right now, addressing chronic pain and itch and cough and things like that, and doing it in a nonaddictive way, in a way that really targets the underlying mechanism of why it's occurring,” Batycky said.

Investors: Canaan, F-Prime Capital Partners, Partners Innovation Fund and BioInnovation Capital

Nocion Therapeutics