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St. Louis Beckons; Hempen Answers Call with GenoMed

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Mother knows best, or at least in this particular case. When Paula Hempen was ready to leave her fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, she wanted to head back to St. Louis, where she was raised. Her mom clipped out an ad from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, as Hempen recalls, “[she] said, ‘This might be something you can do.’” So 12 years after leaving her hometown, Hempen found herself returning to what is now dubbed the “BioBelt” as CSO of GenoMed.

Hempen had studied transcriptional regulation and was particularly interested in cancer, which is what she worked on in her fellowship at Scott Kern’s JHU lab. “From there a lot of my work was focused on trying to identify new tumor suppressor genes,” she says. Three years later, her background in bioinformatics and genetics was just what GenoMed founder David Moskowitz was looking for.

Now, she’s responsible for plotting the scientific future of the small medical genomics firm. She spends her time scouring public databases for SNPs that might shed some light on colon cancer, the company’s first disease of interest. “The majority of researchers out there are looking for coding SNPs,” says Hempen, 31. “We’re looking at things that may control regulation of the protein or protein levels.”

Ultimately, the idea is to have a powerful library of cancer-related SNPs and put them on a chip. Way down the road, Hempen says, that could lead to a diagnostic or screen for colon cancer.

It’s hardly a unique business model for genomics companies du jour, but Hempen says the lack of success of other companies doesn’t reflect the model’s viability. “I think the complexity is what’s making it very difficult,” she says. “It’s a fantastic idea, and everyone knows it. … The potential [for SNPs] is there, it’s just got to be teased out.”

— Meredith Salisbury

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