Thinking Big In Biotech

July 06, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

ChekTec Corp. has all the credentials of an up-and-coming biotechnology company: No products, no profits, fewer than 20 employees and a chief executive who answers the phone.

But unlike many biotech companies that have lured investors with promises of dramatic new products and profits, ChekTec of Baltimore has kept most of its discoveries quiet until recently.

"If the company was a slick prospectus and a pile of press releases, I would have walked a long time ago," said Dr. Gary R. Pasternack, who with Dr. Francis P. "Frank" Kuhajda, is responsible for the cutting edge research that provides the company's foundation.

After four years of plugging along in the laboratory, the Johns Hopkins associate professors of pathology believe ChekTec is poised for fast growth.

By next year, ChekTec plans to start selling a cancer testing product in Europe, to expand its 12-person staff to 50 or 100 people and to begin developing a new cancer drug. Already the company has attracted some additional heavyweight expertise with the recruitment of Hopkins' director of oncology, Albert H. Owens Jr., who retired Thursday and will join the company as chairman of its scientific advisory board.

It's hard to tell whether ChekTec will be successful. Some of its most promising scientific work is still unpublished and hasn't come under the critical eye of the scientific community. As a private company, its financial records are not open to the public. And the company faces many business challenges -- including the need for millions of dollars to grow.

"There is no guarantee [that the company] is going to do what it says it can do today," said Philip English, president of Broventure Co. Inc., a Baltimore-based venture capital company that has invested in ChekTec. "But the efforts of Pasternack and Kuhajda could have some real impact on the treatment of cancer the future."

If it succeeds, little ChekTec may grow up to be just the kind of biotech business that Baltimore needs to boost its life sciences image.

A home-grown product of two Hopkins pathologists and a Baltimore venture capitalist, ChekTec could become a model for turning the magic of the laboratory into big bucks and jobs.

"ChekTec is a model of the kind of start-up that we would like to see dozens of over the next few years, with the understanding that not everyone will hit [it big]," said David Gillece, an economic development consultant for the Greater Baltimore Committee.

And Chief Executive Patrick P. Hervy said he wants the company to stay in the city of its birth, providing manufacturing and scientific jobs here. "We feel we have a sizable success coming up. We feel the city can share in that success."

The city already has begun to share with ChekTec. The company has received a $150,000 adjustable-rate loan from the Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-public agency whose enterprise development fund helps small, risky ventures.

ChekTec appears worth the risk, said Ellen Wiggins, director of the fund. It has an experienced management team, backing from several venture capitalists and a favorable, independent assessment of its science.

If the company succeeds, Baltimore Development Corp. will profit, too.

In return for the loan, it received ChekTec warrants, which can be exchanged for company stock.

Years before ChekTec was conceived, the seeds of research were born in the brains of two Hopkins scientists working in their laboratory. Drs. Pasternack and Kuhajda wanted to identify a molecule that would forecast a woman's long-term chance of survival from an early, invasive form of breast cancer. And they thought the research might lead them to a drug to treat breast cancer.

By 1988, they were on their way to identifying that molecule -- Onco Antigen 519, or OA-519 for short. The next step: to track OA-519 in women with breast cancer.

When a woman is operated on for breast cancer, a piece of the tumor is removed, put into a wax block, then sliced and made into a slide that can be examined by a pathologist for diagnosis. The wax blocks are saved. Drs. Pasternack and Kuhajda went back to the blocks to see which patients had the OA-519 `D molecule, then tracked down the patients to see if breast cancer had recurred eight or 10 years later.

They found that when OA-519 was present in the early stages of the disease, the women were more likely to have the cancer recur and to die.

They used their discovery to develop a test that could be given to the 180,000 women who develop breast cancer each year, to help them and their doctors decide how aggressively to treat the disease. Currently, there is much debate about whether doctors should recommend further treatment after surgery.

If a woman was tested and found to have the OA-519 molecule in her body, doctors could recommend further treatment after surgery, Dr. Pasternack said.

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