By Mary Welch

Select Therapeutics Inc., a company that identifies and acquires early-stage drug and diagnostic candidates, has a good track record since forming in 1996. The Chestnut Hill, Mass.-based company has raised $4 million, has a portfolio of six licenses, has applied for or received 12 patents, and has two Phase I cancer trials scheduled to begin by the end of the year.

The 20-employee firm was formed by Robert Bender, a consultant with extensive experience in institutional and venture capital management, and George Spitalny, a biotechnology and pharmaceutical consultant.

Spitalny, Select's president, was chief scientific officer for TargeTech Inc., of Meriden, Conn. (now part of The Immune Response Corp., of Carlsbad, Calif.), and was also a director of immunology in the cancer research group for Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., of New York.

Bender, Select's CEO, was as an interim CEO of Neurochem Inc., of Kingston, Ontario, and Micro Pulse Inc., of Camarillo, Calif.

The company's focus is on the therapeutic potential of verotoxin, a naturally occurring protein produced by strains of Escherichia coli, for the treatment of cancer. Verotoxin binds to specific receptors on the exterior surfaces of some living cells, including certain types of malignant tumors. After the binding occurs, the receptive cell is penetrated and killed. Preliminary data show that tumor growth was inhibited as a result of restricting the cell's needed blood flow.

Select has broadened its applications of verotoxin for use in bone marrow purging, and in treating "hamburger disease" — a food poisoning from undercooked meats — caused by E. coli. The company also now is involved in HIV diagnostics and in using "selectide" compounds for developing new antibiotics.

"We don't do the initial research and development. Instead what we do is evaluate and license new technologies and discoveries and take them to the next level," said Dawn Van Zant, a spokeswoman. "We look for technologies that may be moved through the system quickly, which also means in the most cost-effective way."

The company has licensing agreements with the University of Toronto, which includes the Innovation Foundation; the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children; and the Ontario Cancer Institute and Princess Margaret Hospital. The foundation is a stockholder in Select.

The firm last week announced it entered into a research agreement with France's Institute Curie and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique for rights to develop vaccines against cancer and other disease using technology based on the expression of the verotoxin receptor by human dendritic cells. The dendritic cells start the body's immune response systems.

Select will financially support the research being done in Paris and at the Research Institute of the Hospital for Sick Children, in Toronto. Select may undertake private funding efforts to establish a subsidiary for this project, VanZant said. "It may be in the $25 million to $50 million range, because we believe that there are a number of applications for this platform technology."

Viable cancer treatments based on verotoxin are the engine driving much of the research. Ovarian, testicular, cervical, breast and brain cancers are among the targets. By the end of the year, Select expects to enter Phase I trials using verotoxin to treat pediatric brain tumors.

Also scheduled for clinical trials this year is Select's bone marrow purging technology, which uses verotoxin as an agent to selectively target and kill cancer cells in a patient's bone marrow. The marrow is removed prior to chemotherapy or radiation and "purged" of cancer cells before being inserted back into the bone.

Also promising is the company's early diagnostic method for HIV detection, which does not rely on antibody or nucleic acid markers, currently the traditional testing method. Researchers in Canada discovered an enzyme — fyn kinase — that turns immune cells on and off and is activated in the HIV-infected state in as little as 30 minutes following the introduction of the virus into the body. This screening kit would help immensely in the detection of HIV in babies, as well as narrow the vital time between infection and detection. The technology may have use in monitoring disease progression as well.

In other areas, Select is working to develop potential new antibiotics based on selectides or altering the way existing antibiotics bind and kill the infection-causing pathogens. So far two molecular structures have been synthesized and tested against bacteria.

Hamburger disease is a verotoxin-related food poisoning disease that affects 40,000 people a year. It is another target for the company, which is studying ways of using verotoxin against itself.

Select's stock (OTC Bulletin Board:SLPU) closed Friday at $7.75, down $1.25. *