They threw a party at the South San Francisco, Calif., headquarters of Genentech Inc. 10 days ago after the Food and Drug Administration gave its long-awaited blessing to the biotechnology firm's antiheart-attack drug, TPA.

In approving the revolutionary antiblood-clot agent, the FDA offered new hope to the 1.5 million Americans who die of heart attacks every year and gave Genentech immediate access to a market that could exceed $1 billion a year.

But there also was cheering at the offices of Survival Technology Inc. in Bethesda, where the FDA's decision was an important first step in the small medical products manufacturer's attempt to tap into the huge health care field.

For the past 2 1/2 years, Survival Tech has been working with Genentech to develop a special form of TPA that can be self-administered by people at a high risk of heart attacks at the very moment they suffer an attack.

Survival Tech's TPA product may be a long way off, however. Company officials said the development and regulatory hurdles facing the company are formidable. But for a struggling company like Survival Tech, the rewards could be huge.

"The market for this is going to be either big, very big, or very, very big," said Stanley Sarnoff, Survival Tech's chairman and president, referring to the millions of Americans who are potential heart attack victims.

Survival Tech makes syringes. Not typical reusable hospital syringes, but prefilled patented "auto-injectors" that patients administer to themselves.

Since its founding in the late 1950s, the company has made 50 million of these devices for the Pentagon, filled with an antidote to nerve gas for potential use by American soldiers on the battlefield.

To that core business, Survival Tech has added auto-injectors filled with instant medication for people with life-threatening allergies to insect stings, various foods and drugs, as well as syringes filled with medication for people suffering from arrhythmias, or irregular heart rhythms.

"If I had to say in one word what this company sells, it's time," Sarnoff said.

"We're active in areas where there is a threat of imminent death, where there are drugs available that can influence it, and where the patient has to do something in behalf of his own survival," he said.

Previously these have been small markets that have left the company in a marginally profitable $25 million-to-$30 million-a-year niche player in recent years.

The agreement with Genentech to develop a form of TPA for use in auto-injectors, however, could put Survival Tech into a new league.

TPA has proven to be most effective in dissolving clots if administered within 60 minutes of an attack.

But the average heart attack victim takes two hours to even call a hospital or doctor for help. And the longer a blot clot goes without treatment, the more permanent the damage to the heart can be.

Because TPA must get to a blood clot quickly to be effective, the present versions of the drug must be administered directly into a patient's blood stream by a health professional able to find a major vein quickly.

What Survival Tech and Genentech are trying to do is develop a version that can quickly get to the site of a blood clot even though the drug is administered by patients who may have neither the time nor the expertise to find an appropriate vien.

"You've got a marvelous molecule here in TPA, and the question is, how do you maximize its usage?" said Douglas Greenwold, Survival Tech's vice president for corporate planning and development.

The scientific and regulatory obstacles that remain, even after the FDA's approval of the original form of TPA, are considerable. But, said Sarnoff, "the consequences of success are so great, we can't afford not to go forward."

Survival Tech hopes to market the TPA injector within its "Survival Heart System" that it has developed during the past few years for several thousand patients suffering from arrhythmias.

Under the system, patients with heart problems are enrolled by their doctors and receive a transmitter called a Cardio-Beeper and an auto-injector filled with Lidocaine, the standard medication for irregular heart beats.

If the patient suffers chest pains, the Cardio-Beeper records heart rhythms and can transmit an electrocardiogram by telephone to Survival Tech's 24-hour cardiac monitoring center in Bethesda.

There, nurses and technicians read the cardiogram and direct the patient according to instructions provided earlier by the patient's physician.

In serious cases, the patient is asked to administer the Lidocaine himself, and the cardiac center calls an ambulance and notifies the nearest hospital on behalf of the patient.

Patients enrolled in the Survival Tech program notify the center of chest pains within 20 minutes on average, well below the general population's average response time of two hours.

Using TPA under the same system, company officials said, could make it a much more effective drug.

Auto-injected TPA is, however, a long way off. Survival Tech reports encouraging results from preliminary animal testing of the modified drug, but the firm has yet to file an initial "Investigational Drug Application" with the FDA.

"I would like to think we could get it approved before the end of this decade," said Jim Gower, vice president of marketing for Genentech.

But he stresses the difficulty of the regulatory hurdles and the need for long-term studies showing that the system devised by Survival Tech is safe.

"There's a lot of work that has to be done," he said.

Sarnoff declined to comment on when the new TPA might be ready. That, he said, would be "ethically unappetizing."

In the meantime, Survival Tech faces a number of immediate financial concerns.

Between 60 percent and 70 percent of the company's business is based on defense contracts for antinerve-gas injectors, and those are at best a stagnant income source of uncertain profitability.

The company's heart system is growing at a yearly rate of 30 percent to 35 percent, but it remains small.

Company officials say that to get the heart program from its current base of several thousand patients up to its potential -- about 130,000 patients (at $1,000 per year) -- Survival Tech will need marketing help from a major pharmaceutical company.

Negotiations with a number of firms are in progress, according to Greenwold.

For the fiscal year ending in July, Survival Tech recorded profits of $316,000 on sales of $27.8 million, after posting losses ranging between $750,000 and $900,000 for the three previous years.

"We need equity and we don't make any bones about it. We're too long on debt," Greenwold said. "We were going to make some movement in the capital markets, but that will have to be reevaluated in light of what happened in October {with the stock market collapse}."

"Their technology is really interesting," said Wendy Wachtel, vice president of Wachtel of Co. Inc. in Washington. "But then, there are a lot of firms with interesting technology. Sooner or later, they've got to settle down and start making some serious money. There has to be steak, where, for the most part, there's been only sizzle.