As America's aging population and the medical community at large search for less-invasive ways of combating illnesses, treatments are coming in ever-smaller packages.

And one particular treatment that is the size of a grain of rice is fueling meteoric growth at North American Scientific Inc.

The Chatsworth company makes low-level radiation products for a broad range of medical, scientific and industrial uses, but its treatment for prostate cancer has placed NASI on the fast track, not to mention Deloitte & Touche's list of the 50 fastest growing technology companies in greater Los Angeles.

What has driven growth is the company's entry into brachytherapy products tiny radioactive implants used to treat prostate cancer in men.

"We caught Wall Street's eye because it saw brachytherapy as an attractive treatment option and that cases (in which the product is used) were expanding greatly," said Chief Financial Officer Alan Edrick.

Prostate cancer is a vexing disease because the cure removal of the prostate often causes impotence or incontinence. In the past, the main alternative was a combination of hormone therapy to shrink the tumor and radiation treatments to kill cancer cells, which was often less effective and still caused considerable discomfort.

Brachytherapy, or "seeding" the cancer directly with radioactive isotopes embedded in capsules the size of rice grains, has been around for years. But it has only been over the past couple of years that seeding has become the treatment of choice for a growing number of doctors and their patients.

"The outlook (for brachytherapy) is very favorable," said Dr. Shona Dougherty, assistant professor of radiation oncology at UCLA. "More and more people are looking at seeds as an option."

UCLA is performing the procedure on an increasing number of patients with prostate cancer, the most notable so far being Charlton Heston. Dougherty said UCLA gets its seeds from Mentor Corp., which is the exclusive distributor of NASI's seeds.

With corporate offices in Chatsworth and a manufacturing facility in North Hollywood, NASI also develops and manufactures low-level radiation products for such diverse areas as aerospace and environmental monitoring.

Customers include hospitals, medical equipment manufacturers, utilities and governments in North America, Europe and Asia.

President and Chief Executive L. Michael Cutrer, 42, founded the company 10 years ago after managing research and development at another lab. Mostly non-therapeutic isotopes were manufactured and marketed, but sales took off in 1998 when the publicly traded firm entered the brachytherapy field.

Revenue that year was $5.8 million, up from $3.4 million in 1997 and $100,000 in 1990. This year, revenue is projected to be $12 million. Net income in 1998 was $1.1 million, compared with $276,000 the prior year.

For its most recent completed quarter ended July 31, NASI reported net income of $981,000, up from $420,000 (6 cents) for the like period a year ago. The stock price has more than doubled from a year ago.

Edrick, 31, said clinical studies began finding that survival rates for seeding were similar to those for surgical removal of the prostate, but that the quality of life for patients who underwent brachytherapy was much better.

Dougherty added that advances in ultrasound technology have made placing the seeds a more exact science, and more studies are showing that the procedure works. "Most of my patients are up and doing business the very next day," she said.

But she said seeding is only effective for early-stage prostate cancer that has not spread, and that it is not recommended for men who can't take anesthesia because of heart or respiratory problems or who have had certain other prostate problems.

It also is not recommended for men under age 65 because there is a small risk that the radiation can itself cause cancer years later. "But that view may be changing," she said, noting that studies have found only a 1 percent risk of the seeds causing another cancer.

With FDA approval already in place, North American did not have to conduct clinical trials. Another advantage the company had was that in the early stages of development, it invested heavily in automating the process of making the seeds, so it could keep up with growing demand.

"We saw an opportunity and moved rapidly to penetrate the market," Edrick said. "It was a natural fit for us. Our core expertise is putting radioactive isotopes on just about anything."

The company is developing a similar radioactive pellet that could be used to treat certain kinds of heart disease. It has also signed a letter of intent to acquire Theseus Imaging Corp., which is developing another quality-of-life-enhancing technology that may be able to help clinicians determine within days whether a patient's cancer chemotherapy treatments are working, saving patients from having to suffer through an entire regimen that is ineffective.

"It's nice to be able to work in a company where every shipment we send out could be curing someone of cancer," Edrick said.

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