Maryland companies have designed lifesaving medical equipment. But they get little respect as biotech.

MACHINES OF MERCY

February 04, 1991|By Timothy J. Mullaney

The year is 1992. A terminal liver cancer patient, with no other hope in sight, turns to a new type of surgery.

The patient is wheeled alongside a big, boxy machine about the size of a large office photocopier. The surgeon, using ultrasound, finds the boundaries of the tumor and inserts a sharp probe. The probe marshals liquid nitrogen chilled to minus 196 degrees Celsius.

The ultracold shock tears apart the blood vessels within the tumor, strangling the malignant cells they feed.

The tumor dies. The patient lives. And the company that made the probe makes a fortune.

*

At least that's the way J. J. Finkelstein hopes it turns out. He runs Cryomedical Sciences Inc. of Bethesda, the company that makes the new surgical probe. And if the CMS Oncoprobe is a success, his company not only will make a great deal of money, but it also will be able to plow the profits into developing other medical breakthroughs -- and, along the way, build an empire.

For now, however, Cryomedical Sciences is nothing much -- a no-profit start-up company from the least glamorous niche of the biotechnology industry, medical technology. But while the gene splicers and developers of wonder drugs command more capital and headlines, Cryomedical and other manufacturers of new medical devices and diagnostic kits are no less promising sources of potentially lifesaving discoveries and economic growth.

In the Maryland biotech universe, medical technology manufacturing companies rank a poor third in visibility behind drug development companies and custom research firms, which supply laboratory services to support other companies' product development work.

There are a lot of reasons for this -- as many as there are experts. Universities in the Baltimore-Washington corridor were slow to embrace the notion that university research should be turned into business opportunities. The area lacks the big medical-technology firms that spin off small med-tech companies. The area has only a few top-notch engineering schools. Prospective returns aren't as high as with drug companies, and survival isn't as easy as it is for custom research companies, which can live off the government subcontract work that is so abundant in the region.

But high-tech medical manufacturing companies are out there, small for now, and hoping to make a mark. Cryomedical Sciences is typical.

The company still hasn't introduced its first product yet, though it was founded in 1987. It runs on the founding partners' initial investment and the $5 million-plus raised in a 1989 public stock offering. It has only seven full-time employees, its headquarters are in subleased office space in Bethesda Metro Center, and its research is farmed out to teaching hospitals from Pittsburgh to Arizona.

Its first product, the CMS Oncoprobe, is set to go on the market later this year. Its other product line, a blood substitute designed to allow surgeons to drain the body of blood and cool it down while they perform complicated operations, won't be ready for years to come.

But Mr. Finkelstein, Cryomedical Sciences' chief executive, swears his company won't be one of those companies written off the biotech world's version of the good-field, no-hit shortstop -- "nice science, no business."

"The market for this machine is at least $100 million," he said of the Oncoprobe. "We're going to have a business. We're going to develop this business. We're going to manufacture it -- hopefully in Maryland."

Like other products of cryobiology -- low-temperature medicine -- the Oncoprobe attempts to tap the power of extreme cold to heal. At first it will be used to treat liver cancer and prostate cancer patients, Mr. Finkelstein said, but as the technology evolves it will also be applied to brain and pancreatic cancers.

The company points to a study led by Dr. Gary Onik, a Pittsburgh radiologist who is on Cryomedical Sciences' scientific advisory board, as evidence the machine works. According to a just-published medical article, Dr. Onik used the Oncoprobe on 27 patients who had inoperable, terminal liver cancer, and of the first 18 patients, five were still free of disease four to 53 months later.

"Liver cancer is 100 percent terminal if it's inoperable, which these all are," Mr. Finkelstein said. "If you can save 25 percent of the group, that's a very good [result]."

Cryomedical Sciences has come a long way even to get this close to its first product introduction. It was founded in 1987 when a trio of California scientists hooked up with Martin Weissman, the president of a Long Island-based temporary help firm for medical personnel. The scientists were working on the blood-substitute formulas that Cryomedical Sciences is still trying to perfect. The business of Mr. Weissman and his investment banker son, Jeffrey, was money. It was a match.

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