Women’s health test firm raising $7.3M to understand, identify genetic markers of birth defects

A genetic testing firm hoping to prevent the birth defect spina bifida by identifying genetic markers in pregnant women is raising money and conducting spina bifida research.

Company name: VitaPath Genetics.

Industry: Diagnostics.

Location: Foster City, Georgia.

Solution/product: VitaPath’s mission is to develop DNA tests that will identify women at high risk for birth defects. Its first product is a test for certain genetic risk factors that researchers believe are linked to spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine of a baby in the womb does not close entirely around the developing nerves in the spinal cord. Problems for people with spina bifida can include a buildup of fluid around the brain, loss of feeling below the opening in the back, paralysis of the feet or legs, problems with bladder and bowel control and learning problems. According to the Spina Bifida Association, a woman’s risk can be reduced as much as 70 percent when she takes folic acid before and up to three months into her pregnancy. VitaPath hopes to eventually help prevent the defect by identifying at-risk women who can be treated with folic acid.

Money raised: So far, VitaPath has raised $5 million of a targeted $7.3 million round, according to a regulatory filing. The company raised a $6 million series A in 2009.

How it will be used: Inquiries sent to the media representative for the company weren’t returned. Currently, VitaPath is sponsoring collaborative research along with University of California, San Francisco; Stanford University; University of California, Berkeley; and Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland to help validate its test and improve the genetic understanding of spina bifida.

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Investors: Series A investors include Mohr Davidow Ventures and X/Seed Capital.

Management team: Founder and CEO Dennis Gilbert was previously chief science officer and vice president of research at Applied Biosystems and also held executive positions at Celera and specialty chemicals company W.R. Grace & Co.. His academic background is in cell biology, chemistry and population genetics. Chief financial officer Richard Taylor has been CFO for several biotech companies and held financial management positions at Syntex/Roche.

Market size: There are an estimated 6 million pregnancies in the U.S. every year. Spina bifida is one of the most common debilitating birth defects among those pregnancies and affects more than 1,500 babies each year, according to March of Dimes.

Competitors: The most commonly used screening methods for spina bifida include second trimester MSAFP screening and fetal ultrasound, according to the NIH. These, however, cannot definitively determine that the condition is present.

[Photo from Stuart Miles]