- America is in the midst of a deadly opioid epidemic. There’s a need for better pain drugs that aren’t addictive.
- A new startup, Nocion Therapeutics, is using science out of Harvard and a fresh $27 million in funding to make drugs like that.
- It plans to focus first on relieving coughs, an area of pain management that’s been overlooked. More than 30 million people go to the doctor each year complaining about coughs, and prescription products sometimes include opioids.
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As America grapples with a deadly opioid epidemic, there’s a desperate need for better, non-addictive painkillers.
Using science out of Harvard and $27 million in fresh funding, a health startup just now coming out of stealth mode is taking that on.
Nocion Therapeutics’ approach uses pain-relieving medicine that you might recognize from the dentist’s office, but with a twist, aiming to make those drugs work in a more targeted and effective way.
Nocion has in its sights an area that’s often overlooked in conversations about pain — not surgery or chronic back pain, but cough.
Though the condition may sound relatively benign, it’s a common-enough complaint to send 30 million people in the US to the doctor each year. Prescription cough medications, meanwhile, commonly contain opioids.
"I’m a sucker for something that seems like an interesting idea, and maybe other folks haven’t thought about," CEO Richard Batycky told Business Insider in an interview.
And in the space that Nocion in, there "just hasn’t been innovation," he said. Batycky has a long track record in biotech, including an eight-year stint at Alkermes and, more recently, four years as chief technology officer at Acorda.
He said it’ll be at least a year before the company is ready to test potential drugs in humans.
A ‘Trojan horse’ approach borrowing numbing medicines from the dentist’s office
Nocion’s approach is based on local anesthetics, or pain killers, such as the drug lidocaine.
Think of the last time you had a dental procedure.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Your dentist may have dulled your mouth with a local anesthetic to prevent pain. Maybe the process prompted some drooling, too.
Those types of local anesthetics, which are not addictive like opioids and are already proven effective at treating pain, have become the new front door in the search for a better painkiller.
Of more than 120 non-opioid medications being developed, 28 are in this category, according to an Informa Pharma Intelligence report from late last year.
Nocion’s plans to target the same mechanism, using already-approved drugs like lidocaine as a "scaffold," Batycky explains. But then the company makes them into something entirely new, including through chemical changes that "charge" the molecule.
The type of process you learn about in high school science classes, charging isn’t especially cutting-edge. But Nocion is using it as a type of Trojan Horse that activates the body to pick up the painkiller, and hopefully deliver it to exactly the right place.
Charged medicines aren’t common, because our bodies usually keep charged molecules out. But Nocion believes it can harness a process that’s already going on in the body when, for example, you touch a hot kettle or freezing cold ice cube.
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Nocion’s scientific founders are Dr. Bruce Bean, Dr. Clifford Woolf and Dr. Bruce Levy, who are based at Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital. They figured "why not just drop on the end of this, when the body’s already worked this out?" Batycky said.
That the company is using already-established medicines is a draw, Julie Grant, a partner at the venture-capital firm Canaan, told Business Insider.
Grant was the person who first came across the Harvard technology, subsequently co-leading the push to create Nocion with Tom Beck of F-Prime Capital Partners. Canaan and F-Prime Capital Partners led Nocion’s $27 million Series A funding round.
"The fact that sodium channel inhibitors work so well in people is something I think we should pay attention to, and I think has been overlooked," Grant said, referring to a group of drugs that includes local anesthetics.
Nocion’s approach may start in cough, with other types of pain also in sight
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Nocion will likely develop its experimental product to treat coughs first, as an inhaled treatment.
There’s a lot of opportunity to treat coughs, which exists across a spectrum. Some coughs begin after a virus, while others are tied to certain diseases. "Mystery" coughs, meanwhile, may persist for a long time without any underlying medical reason.
Nocion is also eyeing other pain or itches in the gastroinestinal tract, along with different types of pain like those resulting from surgeries.
"If we can show that we have an effect in cough, and we really understand that underlying mechanism, that is a springboard to other indications as well," Batycky said.
Local anesthetics do have their problems. In cough, there are concerns about side effects like choking on food, Batycky says.
But Nocion believes its highly-targeted approach could avoid the drug getting to the wrong places and causing side effects. Also important to watch for as the company progresses: how powerful its medicines are. For use in cough, a product must be powerful enough to be given in small, inhalable doses.
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