BioPharma, Pharma

Flagship merges two of its biotechs to form cellular microenvironment-focused Sonata

Sonata Therapeutics is developing drugs that reprogram cellular microenvironments to send signals intended to have curative effects. Cancer is the initial focus of the biotech, which Flagship Pioneering formed by combining two of its preclinical portfolio companies.


Many biotech companies are developing therapies that address the tumor microenvironment, the ecosystem around a cancer cell that supports it and protects it. Cancer is one of the focus areas for Sonata Therapeutics, but the Flagship Pioneering-backed startup aims to address other therapeutic areas and it is broadening its scope to cellular microenvironments.

Flagship unveiled Sonata on Wednesday. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based venture capital firm said that the microenvironment of cells has never been fully characterized or understood. Sonata is developing small molecules and genetic medicines that are based on a systemic and comprehensive characterization of the microenvironment in states of disease. Besides cancer, Sonata’s research includes fibrosis and autoimmune disease.

Sonata represents the combination of two Flagship portfolio companies, Cygnal Therapeutics and Inzen Therapeutics, both of them formed within the VC firm’s labs in 2017. Cygnal came out of stealth first, revealing $65 million in financing in 2019 along with details about its approach to develop therapies based on understanding the ways that peripheral nerves communicate with disease cells. Cygnal’s drugs—small molecules and biologics—would work by disrupting the signals going between them, then CEO Pearl Huang said at the company’s launch. The startup’s initial focus was cancer and inflammation.

Flagship pulled back the wraps on Inzen last year. Inzen’s approach to treating disease was based on understanding how cells process and respond to inputs from dying cells. That cell death can be either from the normal cycle of cell turnover or from disease. Inzen aimed to develop drugs for cancer, fibrosis, autoimmune disease, metabolic disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases.

According to Flagship, Sonata’s drugs would treat disease by reprogramming a cell’s signaling networks. The biotech identifies new drug targets that induce the release of signals that spark curative activity in cellular microenvironments.

Sonata is now led by CEO Volker Herrmann, the former chief executive of Inzen. Flagship said that Huang recently left Cygnal to pursue new opportunities. No funding details were disclosed for the new company, which has a pipeline of six preclinical programs in cancer. Fibrosis and autoimmune disorders are exploratory efforts.

“Flagship’s focus on pioneering breakthroughs in human health, is embodied in the groundbreaking work of both Inzen and Cygnal,” Noubar Afeyan, Flagship’s founder and CEO said in a prepared statement. “As the companies grew and their science advanced, their shared vision to reprogram the cellular microenvironment became clear. Sonata combines the expertise, resources, and vision of both companies to build a single stronger entity.”

Flagship has turned to the merger playbook for its portfolio companies before. Senda Biosciences, a Flagship startup developing drugs based on the understanding of how humans interact with bacteria, incorporates science from Kintai Therapeutics, a former Flagship company . Repertoire Medicines, a biotech developing therapies based on research into the interactions between immune cells and antigens, formed in 2020 through the merger of Flagship companies Torque Therapeutics and Cogen Immune Medicines.

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