CURING WITH LIGHT
Born in Singapore during World War II, Julia Levy was smuggled to Canada by her mother, just weeks before her father was captured and jailed in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Bought up in Vancouver, she eventually became a professor of microbiology at the University of BC. Here she co-discovered photodynamic anti-cancer drugs – in which a drug is activated by light, making it possible to restrict its effects to malignant cells, leaving its healthy neighbours in peace. In 1986, when a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary discontinued manufacture of one of these drugs, she and a partner bought the company. QLT became a world leader in drugs that treat not only cancer but also macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in people under 55.
Recognizing that the threat of World War was again looming on the horizon, and knowing that Japan was in alliance with Germany, Guillaume Coppens, Julia’s father, looked for ways to ensure the safety of his wife and young family. In Singapore working as an executive at a Dutch bank, Coppens made contact with relatives in Vancouver, British Columbia. His wife and two young daughters soon left to stay with them while he remained behind. His fears over the growing conflict soon materialized and he was captured, and placed in an Indonesian Prisoner-of-war camp where he was held until the end of the war.
In Vancouver, his wife and two young daughters waited for his return. To make ends meet, his wife worked as a physiotherapist while raising her two daughters with the support of the family.
When the war ended, her father returned home. He had managed to survive the prisoner of war camp but like many of those returning home, forever changed. Julia’s mother continued to support the family while Julia learned important lessons: be self-sufficient, develop your own career, don’t marry for security but for love.
While on the path to self-sufficiency, her enthusiasm for biology grew. She completed, an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of British Columbia and moved on to receive her PhD in experimental pathology at University College in London, England in 1959. Following completion, she found herself back at UBC, starting off a career of cancer research.
A number of years later Julia was at her newly-acquired holiday property on Sonora Island. Her son was out clearing the property of weeds, a task the seven-year old took on with great enjoyment. As he slashed and moved deeper into the overgrowth, he brushed up against some cow parsley weed and was soon covered in the liquid they were oozing from their fresh wounds. When the sun came out he suddenly broke out into blisters.
The cause remained a mystery until Levy consulted with other scientists at UBC, learning that there is a substance in cow parsley weed that was activated by light that could damage and even destroy different tissues, including skin cells. For Levy, this experience opened up the possibility of photo-activated treatments and the eventual co-development of photodynamic therapy (PDT) using a combination of light and drugs to kill abnormal cells.
At the time Levy made these discoveries she was also working with a team to develop cancer-fighting anti-bodies. With no Canadian biotechnology industry to speak of in the early 1980s, putting a drug on the market was an enormous task for Canadian scientists, particularly for those wishing to retain some control over their intellectual property. The team decided to start their own company, Quadra Logic Technologies (QLT), pooled their money, and leased an office and research space. With little experience, and requiring greater resources, the company paired with a larger pharmaceutical company until it was taken over by an even larger company and the intellectual property rights returned fully to QLT. The future of QLT looked strong, and was about to become even stronger.
In the 1980s, Levy’s mother was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration, causing her to go blind. Levy realized that common to both the types of cancer she researched and the type of disease her mother had exhibited the same behaviour; both grew abnormal cells and tissue. Drawing on her earlier research inspired by her son, her attempts to use light to treat macular degeneration led to the “crown jewel” of QLT: Visudyne.
After a number of years at the head of the company, Levy decided to leave, moving on to Cannasat Therapeutics Inc. Demonstrating her knack for finding unexpected solutions, she now is working in the area of cannaboid research, finding that the benefits are widespread; a heavy-duty pain reliever (CAT 310 ) that is much easier on the body than the typically used morphine in addition to CAT 320, which Levy has observed helps schizophrenia patients. Despite the beneficial potential of the molecule that the both are derived from, researchers face great resistance because of the stigma that has developed around cannabis. Efforts continue to both educate the public and to find unexpected solutions to overcome potentially debilitating problems.