‘Life is just freaking incredible’

‘Life is just freaking incredible’

Inventor Randi Altschul of Cliffside Park explores new horizons with Palisades Therapeutics

Serial inventor Randi Altschul made a fortune by selling licensing rights to some 250 products over the past 35 years. Among her creations were TV show formats, board games, a programmable debit card, a paper laptop, a breakfast cereal, and the world’s first disposable cell phone.

After losing her fortune via an unscrupulous financial adviser, she reinvented herself as a baby night nurse despite no prior experience with infants.

One of her clients, a pharmaceutical executive, led Ms. Altschul to invent Pop Test, the world’s first saliva-based glucose test for diabetes.

And that led her to create an entirely new model in the drug development sphere: Palisades Therapeutics, a clinical think tank headquartered in Cliffside Park. The lead scientist is her cousin, noted researcher/pathologist Dr. Neil Theise of NYU.

“Palisades Therapeutics operates much like a brain trust, with more than 70 leading scientists, clinicians, physicians, and professionals working together without a salary to collegially make a difference in the world,” Ms. Altschul said.

“The participants keep their day jobs, but lend their brains to Palisades Therapeutics to create, develop, prove out and protect the company’s technologies with intellectual property and to look to third parties to commercialize or acquire their products.”

Palisades Therapeutics has directed about $50 million into clinical collaborations with government agencies, including the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Department of Defense, congressionally directed medical research programs, and universities and institutions around the world.

It is fair to say that Ms. Altschul, 62, a lifelong Cliffside Park resident, always has found success by thinking outside the box and by surrounding herself, as she says modestly, “with people who are a hell of a lot smarter than I am.”

Her latest idea is giving high-net-worth individuals the chance to be impact investors in potential cures for cancer, among other diseases, within the unique Palisades Therapeutics paradigm.

“In most organizations dedicated to finding cures, about 15 to 20 percent of donations actually go to the cause, and everything else goes to administration and overhead,” Ms. Altschul said. “That’s fine, but in my opinion — I could be 100 percent wrong — you’re paying to keep people employed rather than paying to cure disease.

“In our organization, 100 percent of your money goes to a 501(c)(3) third party that is doing the work for Palisades, so you can get a tax write-off. You can even direct your dollars for the benefit of a specific clinical trial, to really make a difference in the world without wasting any portion of your philanthropic support.”

Ms. Altschul lacked one critical element to put this idea into practice — that is, the right person to reach out to potential investors. She found the person she was looking for when she read about Melanie Cohen in the Jewish Standard on March 16. That story was a profile of Ms. Cohen as she retired as a professional fundraiser for the Jewish Home Foundation.

“I’m a firm believer that everything that happens is for a reason,” Ms. Altschul said. “There are no coincidences in this world.

“I needed someone with Melanie’s expertise, and, when I read the article, it was an answer to my prayers. It just made sense because she knows how to reach high-net-worth individuals. Melanie was sweet enough to respond when I reached out to her, and she joined our organization to help us do exactly what I’m talking about.”

Ms. Cohen says she was at that point reluctant to take on a new project, “but after researching Randi and meeting with her, I found her to be one of the most intriguing, intelligent, and out-of-the-box thinkers I had ever met. I felt her current entrepreneurial efforts were indeed worthwhile and would scientifically help treat or cure some diseases.

“I agreed to join her team to find philanthropic funding for these research efforts that could possibly help humanity.”

From left, Randi Altschul is Palisades Therapeutics’ creator; Dr. Neil Theise is its lead scientist, and John Gregg is its COO. (All photos courtesy Randi Altschul)

Ms. Altschul, the only woman ever to be named a “World’s Notable Inventor” by the World Intellectual Property Organization, was the subject of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon and was featured in a question on the “Jeopardy!” game show in 1996. That was because of her invention of a disposable phone.

“I put over a million dollars of my own money into that product and I ran out of money,” she said. “So I needed investors, and I was introduced to a guy who was supposedly a whiz at raising money.” Unfortunately, she did not know that this adviser had been involved in the Wall Street insider trading scandal of the mid-1980s.

In the space of a year — between 2001 and 2002 — Ms. Altschul lost her company, and both her parents died. But she picked herself up quickly with the strong moral support of her four siblings.

“I had to hit bottom because it was really part of the master plan,” she said. “And I get the master plan now. I’m very spiritual, and I get it. I don’t get mad; I just use each event to move forward. And I’m telling you, I would not change a thing because it put me in a great place.”

While trying to rebuild her business, she hired herself out as a night nanny.

“From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. I was taking care of newborn twins, and even triplets, all over Bergen County. I love babies! There’s something so magical about an infant in your arms. When they look up to you and they’re holding your finger, it’s incredible. It was tiring — but it was great.”

One day in 2008 she got a call from Sandi Peterson, CEO of Bayer Medical Care, a newly widowed mother of two. She did not need a baby nurse, but she hired Ms. Altschul to help care for her younger son and their home in Bergen County and to accompany the family on weekends to their home in Rhode Island.

“We became close on those drives, and in passing she mentioned that the world was scrambling for a noninvasive diabetes test” Ms. Altschul said. “I said, ‘Well, I can do that,’ and I created the Pop Test.”

Although she is not a scientist, she went about this task as she had all her previous inventions. She envisioned the finished product and then recruited what she calls “smart people” to make it happen.

In this case, she met John Gregg at a NJ Venture Association luncheon. Mr. Gregg suggested she talk to someone at Johnson & Johnson to discuss the Pop Test saliva diabetes test.

Mr. Gregg later became Palisades Therapeutics chief operations officer. Through him, she was introduced to Myron Rapkin, “a brilliant chemist who used to run Miles Lab and then became an independent chemist,” and together they ran with the Pop Test ball.

Miles Lab, by the way, was a wholly owned subsidiary of Bayer until being consolidated into the parent corporation in 1995. So the Bayer connection that started with Ms. Peterson came full circle.

“Just being in Sandi’s presence is the reason I’m doing everything I’m doing today,” Ms. Altschul said. “I owe her everything. Even my dog! When Sandi moved to Germany to become CEO of Bayer Crop Science, she gave me her dog, Higgins, who was the light of my life.

“Things happen for a reason. It’s all part of the master plan. If I had not hit bottom, I would never have met Sandi and I never would have started the Pop Test company. I would never be — please God — saving lives with everything I’m doing at Palisades Therapeutics.

“You just have to follow the bread crumbs and pick them up. Because they’re all there. Life is just freaking incredible.”

Last week, Ms. Altschul released the news of a preliminary finding regarding a Palisades Therapeutics drug candidate, PT162, which reactivates the natural cancer-inhibiting capability of a protein that, when mutated, fails to stop cells from becoming malignant. PT162 showed promise in tests done on tumor cells of certain types of prostate cancer and multiple myeloma.

Ms. Altschul’s grandparents were given this plaque; the flier details its context.

The next step is to interest big pharma in reviewing the data, with an eye toward collaboration.

“The stuff we’re doing on a shoestring budget is absolutely groundbreaking,” Ms. Altschul said.

Where does her boundless optimism come from?

She laughed. “My mom used to have all these Yiddish phrases, like ‘you’ve got to have hope.’ She also used to say, ‘Shut your mouth for peace’s sake. Have faith.’”

Ms. Altschul’s mother, Renee, was from England. Her father, Gunther, was a German refugee. “He escaped with his family during the Holocaust and became a self-made man.”

Theirs was a close-knit Jewish family, not traditionally religious but deeply spiritual.

And like their daughter, Renee and Gunther Altschul were willing to think unconventionally. When Randi decided to quit school after the first week of seventh grade — “I hated getting spoon-fed information. Just give me a book and I will get an A, but sitting in a classroom is just too boring for me.” — the Altschuls got in touch with their neighbor and friend Irving Kamil, a long-time member and former president of Temple Israel in Cliffside Park. More relevantly for this story, he also was the president of the Cliffside Park Board of Education.

“Mr. Kamil provided guidance for them to go after ways to educate a kid like me,” Ms. Altschul said. “At that time I could do anything in my head, especially math- and science-related.”

After extensive testing that proved her high IQ, the education system provided her with a private tutor for an hour a day. “It was great because I could learn at my pace in any subjects that I wanted,” she said. “I graduated in 1978 and I went to Montclair State College for a semester, but at that time there was no way I could get accustomed to being spoon-fed info again, and I stopped going and instead started inventing.”

Much later, in 2002, on his deathbed, her father told Ms. Altschul he would always be there to help and protect her.

“There’s a certain song that, when I hear it, I burst out with smiles because I know that it means my dad’s around,” she said. “And my mom comes and visits me in dreams. They’re all working behind the scenes to make this happen.”

Nyack-based psychic Litany Burns once met Ms. Altschul and sized her up immediately. “She looked at me, and said, ‘You’re an inventor and an entrepreneur, but you were put here to heal people,’” Ms. Altschul reported.

“It confirmed what I already knew, but that’s what you need sometimes — that affirmation to say, ‘I’m on the right path.’ Whenever I get frustrated, God sends me a bone — in the language of Squire Rushnell’s book series, a ‘Godwink’ — to let me know I shouldn’t worry.”

At the beginning, Palisades Therapeutics also focused on diagnostics and medical devices.

In addition to Pop Test, Ms. Altschul invented a programmable, customizable “smart pill.” The pills can communicate with each other and prevent overdose, counterfeiting, theft, and diversion. Another product from the company was an antibody formulated for early detection of pancreatic cancer at Stages 1 through 3.

Recently, Palisades Therapeutics has put most of its energies into pharmaceutical developments. Earlier drug candidates reduced triple negative breast cancer tumors in mice by 60 percent and ovarian cancer tumors by 54 percent, “and prostate cancer tumors were totally obliterated,” Ms. Altschul said.

The five Altschul siblings; from left, Jeff, Gail, Mark, Randi, and Larry.

“Our studies were done by the go-to guy in oncology, Dr. Dan Von Hoff of the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona. Having Dan’s name associated with us was a coup.”

When Ms. Altschul presented the data at a meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, she recalled, “they all knew Dan, and they thought our results were incredible.” But the head of a major pharmaceutical company told her they would need more data.

“Inside, I burst into laughter, because that was my answer to the question of why this project was put in my lap even though I am not a scientist. If God gave it to a Ph.D. or MD, they would have said, ‘Sorry, we need more data.’ So God said, ‘Give it to Randi. She’ll do anything.’

“I’ve always said that I’ve made knowing nothing an art form. In everything that I do, God shoots the ideas into my head, and I make it happen. I liken myself to an orchestra leader. I don’t know how to play any instruments, but I know how to combine them all to make the music happen.”

The principal musicians in the Palisades Therapeutics orchestra are Dr. Theise and Mr. Gregg, along with a crew of scientists, clinicians, and physicians around the world.

Over the last 10 years, this scientific orchestra has developed about a dozen molecules as drug candidates, ready to come to the attention of “the right person at one of the pharma companies,” Ms. Altschul said.

“We created a really a simple paradigm and we have very low overhead; we have no salaried employees. Through Melanie’s efforts we can now open this up to people who can write a check and say, ‘Get that cure done!’”

To reach Ms. Altschul, email her at Randi@palisadestherapeutics.com.

read more: