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Utah Business

Peel Therapeutics, a Utah biotech startup, specializes in a unique kind of research, and they're hoping it will cure cancer.

Peel Therapeutics studies the evolution of elephants to help cure cancer 

Peel Therapeutics is creating a new generation of medicine from (elephant) cancer-fighting proteins to treat (human) patients with cancer. 

“When we first recognized that elephants had successfully overcome disease and rarely developed cancer, we knew this was an important discovery,” says Dr. Joshua Schiffman, Peel Therapeutics’ co-founder and CEO. 

It isn’t easy to deliver millions of years of cancer-fighting ability from elephants in a nanoscale lipid nanoparticle (LNP), and the team at Peel is very encouraged by their technical and scientific progress. “We’re particularly excited by recent findings that demonstrate that our EP53 LNPs can destroy several types of human and dog cancer cells in a dish,” Schiffman says.

In simple terms, Peel works with molecules and peptides (small proteins) to turn them into medicines that are potentially best-in-class and sometimes first-in-class, Schiffman says. Peel is working to advance the EP53 LNPs along the drug development pipeline, as well as several other nature-inspired drugs. 

“At Peel Therapeutics, we are working on drugs that treat cancer, but we’re also focused on evolution-based medicines to prevent inflammation,” Schiffman says. Peel believes their first-in-class drugs for treating inflammation will have the added advantage of directly reducing the risk and spread of cancer.

Schiffman met his future co-founder of Peel Therapeutics, Dr. Avi Schroeder, at a medical conference in Israel in 2015. “We realized in our first conversation that my medical background coupled with Dr. Schroeder’s drug delivery experience could help us to take from nature and deliver the cancer-fighting ability of elephants to patients,” Schiffman says. The doctors decided the first day they met to launch Peel Therapeutics, knowing that a biotech company would be the fastest way to have their new medicines reach as many patients as possible. 

Schroeder shared with Schiffman that the Hebrew word for elephants is “peel,” which is how they chose the name Peel Therapeutics. And as the company began to grow, the co-founders recognized that other animals and plants in nature also possess incredible biology that protects them from disease. 

Peel will submit its first Investigational New Drug (IND) application to the Food and Drug Administration in the next couple of months. This approval is needed prior to starting a clinical trial in humans, Schiffman says. Peel’s first clinical study will be for a cancer drug to treat solid tumors in patients using a medicine that originates from the stem of an ancient Chinese tree used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine. 

According to Schiffman, Peel scientists and collaborators have modified this plant toxin to overcome modern chemotherapy cancer resistance. “We have identified clinical sites for this early trial across the country, and we look forward to enrolling our first patients in Peel’s first clinical study,” he says. “We want one of these early testing sites to be in Utah.”

Too often in medicine, Schiffman says, doctors see their patients run out of treatment options. And even when drugs work to fight cancer, they can have terrible side effects that lead to a lifetime of health issues for patients—especially for children with cancer. Schiffman saw some of these toxic side effects in the pediatric cancer patients he’s treated throughout the years. He also experienced them himself when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teenager. 

Schiffman always knew he wanted to grow up to fight against cancer and help his patients the way his doctors helped him. It has been a privilege to care for all of his patients and now to transition to a new role by introducing new evolution-inspired medicines around the world, he says. 

“Every day that goes by is another day that a patient, whether a child or adult, dies or suffers from disease,” Schiffman says. “At Peel Therapeutics, we seek to be nature’s conduit to the clinic and bring relief to many people who are sick.”

Elainna Ciaramella (pronounced Elena Chairamella) was born and raised in Los Angeles, but spent over a decade near Laguna Beach in Orange County, California. After moving to sunny Las Vegas, the “entertainment capital of the world,” her yearning to live close to an outdoor playground brought her to southern Utah, where she now lives a few short miles from Tech Ridge, Atwood Innovation Plaza at Utah Tech, Dixie Technical College, and some of the best trails in the Beehive State. As a researcher, journalist and hopelessly devoted storyteller, she’s spent many full days interviewing founders, CEOs, and C-suite executives from all over the country. Beyond writing, her passions include strength training, art, music, hiking, and reading.