VitaPath Raises $6 Million For Spina Bifida

Foster City-based startup VitaPath is working on a cheek-swab test for women that detects the genetic mutation that causes spina bifida, a birth defect that strikes around 1% of babies born in the U.S. and is epidemic in some third-world countries.

By the time it’s detected in the fetus, it can’t be cured, but women who take the test can prevent it by taking large doses of folic acid before they get pregnant, said CEO Bruce Cohen. Folic acid makes the defective gene function correctly.

VitaPath’s test is based on research done at UC Berkeley by Jasper Rine, a professor who studies the frequency and functions of mutations in genes that perform central metabolic functions. Some of these genes had more mutations than he expected, he found, but he also discovered that defects could be corrected.

The company wants to use Rine’s work to improve public health by focusing on mutations that cause serious diseases that can be prevented, Cohen said. He doesn’t know which disease VitaPath will tackle next, but the company is now recruiting women who’ve had children with spina bifida to help validate its first test, which it expects to launch in a year.

The funding is a Series A round led by Mohr Davidow, with a contribution from the secretive X/Seed Capital, which was VitaPath’s first funder. Michael Borrus, X/Seed’s founding partner, was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Mohr Davidow and now pulls interesting research out of universities, according to Mohr Davidow’s Michael Goldberg.

Goldberg said VitaPath should do well under Obama’s healthcare plan, whatever it turns out to be, because it will save healthcare dollars by focusing on early detection and prevention of disease.