By Matthew Willett

EmerGen Inc. said it will use the $15 million in venture capital investment it raised in its initial round of funding to fund advancement of studies begun by the University of Utah.

Oxford Bioscience Partners, of Costa Mesa, Calif., and J.P. Morgan Partners, of New York, led the financing, which included Pacific Rim Ventures, of Tokyo, and vSpring and the Wasatch Venture Fund, both of Salt Lake City.

Together, the venture capital groups acquired about a 45 percent stake in the privately held company.

Founded in 1998, EmerGen, of Salt Lake City, focuses on genomics research in the area of maternal and fetal medicine. EmerGen President Keith Wilson told BioWorld Today his company focuses on reproductive health.

EmerGen was founded largely on the work of University of Utah researcher Kenneth Ward. EmerGen holds rights to several hundred thousand DNA samples collected by the university, and uses them to take a population- and family-oriented approach to gene function research.

"We have extensive DNA collections from families," Wilson said. "We'll be mapping and isolating the genes involved in diseases, and we're looking to work hand-in-hand with some other groups to take advantage of the diagnostics opportunities those insights will provide."

EmerGen will focus on its programs in mapping DNA from families and populations with a focus on preterm labor, birth defects, twinning, cardiac disease, polycystic ovary syndrome and diabetes in addition to programs in the proteomics of the placenta and a joint development program with Micromass UK Ltd., of Manchester, UK, to develop tools for mutation screening.

"The area we look to carry out work in and develop ourselves in is reproductive health areas," Wilson said. "With the families we have access to and populations, we can take a population-based approach as well as a genetic approach.

"We can look at a number of conditions that happen in pregnancy as a unique angle to study things like diabetes. There are a number of conditions that all happen in a fairly compressed time period of pregnancy, and it gives us some unique ways to examine it."

Wilson said his company's approach to population-based genomics might shed light on genes unexpressed after birth that affect adults, seemingly from the womb.

"Many of the estimates say about a third of the genes in humans aren't expressed after birth. They're there, but they're involved developmentally, then go dormant," Wilson said. "Many diseases we see later on, like bicuspid valves, the cause for valve replacements, are set in the developmental phase."