Special Report for the International Year of Chemistry
Chance may favour the prepared mind, as Louis Pasteur once said. But it only leads to success when the prepared mind has the vision and drive to pursue the discoveries that serendipity places in its lap. For Julia Levy, chance encounters and unexpected changes in direction catalyzed a series of reactions that launched the Canadian biotech industry, developed a wonder drug and afforded her the opportunity to pursue her unrelenting passion for exciting science.
Levy has a PhD in microbiology from the University College London but it’s her ability to find inspiration in her family’s ailments, partner with other scientists and explore the intersection of diverse fields to see the patterns of unfolding possibilities that have led to her success.
A passion for the outdoors and the rugged landscape of B.C.’s Gulf Islands led Levy and her husband, Edwin Levy, to buy a piece of land on remote Sonora Island in the late 1960s. As the family cleared the land to begin construction of a summer cabin, a chance encounter between her son and some giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) resulted in angry, blistered skin. The dramatic reaction — compounds in the plant attack human tissue when activated by sunlight — intrigued Levy, then a professor of microbiology at the University of British Columbia. The incident set her on a career-defining path to develop light-activated drugs.
By the 1980s, Levy had advanced her study of photodynamic processes and, while still teaching at UBC, had founded a company, Quadra Logic Technologies, with several UBC colleagues to commercialize diagnostic kits based on her work.
Another chance encounter, this time in UBC’s chemistry department in 1982, caused her to change course. Levy gave a lecture on photodynamic therapy — her research using porphyrins and light to modify and destroy cells and tissue. Chemistry professor David Dolphin was in the audience. “I went down, introduced myself and told her that I thought that I could make much better molecules than she was able to purchase off the shelf,” he says. The collaboration blossomed, the research had cancer-fighting potential, Dolphin joined the company and they convinced it to switch gears to focus on developing a cancer treatment using photodynamic drugs.
Years of research ensued. “The complexity [of the science] was so enchanting to me,” Levy says. Photodynamic therapy suited her, she says, because of the combination of physics, chemistry and biology. The collaboration with other scientists was stimulating. “It’s the excitement of understanding more than just what had been in front of my nose,” she adds. “I love that broad learning, which is why I took to the drug development, too, because it’s complicated and multidisciplinary. I just have the kind of mind that likes the big picture.”
Despite top notch science and some early clinical success, in 1992 everything imploded. The company’s commercial partners abandoned the projects, losing interest in the complexities inherent in photodynamic therapy. The company, now renamed QLT, was at a crossroads. It needed new focus and direction. Levy, it turned out, had just the thing — and she had her mother to thank for it.
Throughout most of Levy’s early life, her mother, Dorothy Coppens, was the rock that kept her family fed, clothed and housed. Born in Singapore to a Dutch merchant banker and an English mother, Levy spent the first five years of her life in South East Asia. On the eve of World War II, Levy’s father, Guillaume Coppens, sent his wife and two girls to stay with relatives in Vancouver, Canada. He was soon captured by the Japanese and interned in Indonesia as a prisoner of war. Levy wouldn’t see her father again for seven years. By the time he rejoined his family in Canada, he was so debilitated by his ordeal that he was no longer able to support the family.
Watching her mother travel to a foreign country and take control of her family’s destiny “made me realize that you can’t rely on the world to look after you,” Levy says. “My mother was perfectly constant as a mother and as a survivor; she was a great role model.”
Unfortunately for Levy’s mother, she also held the key to QLT’s future success. Beginning in the mid-eighties, Dorothy began to lose her sight. She was afflicted with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a debilitating disease in which unwanted blood vessels grow behind the retina, leaking blood and proteins that scar tissue and lead to blindness. The disease afflicts older adults and, according to the World Health Organization, is the third leading cause of blindness in the world.
Levy did what any scientist does when faced with the unknown: she educated herself on her mother’s disease. The information sat in her mind, composting, until one day when she was listening to an ophthalmologist give a conference lecture about treating tumours with photodynamic therapy. “It was during his talk that the penny dropped,” she says.
“I thought, ‘Of course!’ Treating cancer’s tough and it would be hard to get an approval for it, but the eye is a lens. You can get light in there. You can quantify it and it’s very straightforward,” she says. “The biggest problem in science is when you are doing some research and you say, ‘Enough; this isn’t going to work; we’ve got to move on; change directions,’” Dolphin says. “One of the great strengths that Julia brought was persuading QLT to move into this new, unknown area of photodynamic therapy. And, of course, that was the saving grace in the end because [macular degeneration] was a disease for which there was no treatment.” Fast forward to the present, and Visudyne, the drug that Levy, Dolphin and their colleagues developed and brought to market has revolutionized the treatment of macular degeneration. According to QLT, the drug is approved in 80 countries and has been used in more than two million treatments around the globe.
“QLT is one of the few companies in the world where a drug has been developed in a university and taken all the way to market by the people who discovered and developed it,” Dolphin says. “In our development of Visudyne there was, of course, a lot of serendipity — things that went well. But I think they went well because there were smart people like Julia looking after it. She had vision, foresight, scientific prestige, academic prestige and, eventually, a lot of business prestige.”
“My mother went blind from the condition that we developed the treatment for,” Levy says. “To feel that I have given her a legacy in a way was a wonderful, wonderful scientific achievement.”
QLT downsized, shutting down its basic research division in 2008. It was the sign to move on, Levy says. “My first love is science, still,” she says. QLT, with its success and profits, had ventured beyond the early-stage research and no longer satisfied Levy’s love of high-risk, high-reward science. She’s now assumed mentorship roles with start-up biotech companies across the country.
Many of her new projects still bear QLT’s DNA, though. She’s excited about new photodynamic therapy drugs for acne applications being developed by Valocor Therapeutics, which is run by two of her former doctoral students. She’s helping another QLT alumnus, David Granville of viDA Therapeutics, because she loves his science. “He’s got some beautiful data,” she almost gushes.
She splits her time between a pied à terre near Stanley Park in town and a retreat located at the windswept mouth of Desolation Sound in Lund, B.C. “It’s built for my husband and me,” she says. “We wanted to have a small footprint. It’s like an Indian longhouse — huge cedar poles, all glass, right on the ocean. Yeah, it’s a dream house.”
“I have a great life,” she says. Whether it’s a walk along the rugged coastline with her dog Lucy, a Skype conference call with one of her biotech boards or working on her latest passion, a science-infused novel set 50 years in the future, each day brings a new adventure. With Levy as serendipity’s magnet, who knows where chance will take her next. Rest assured she’ll be prepared for whatever comes her way.
Anne Sasso is a Canadian science writer based in Vermont. She has written about science for Discover, Backpacker and Smithsonian.com. She regularly profiles scientists for AAAS ScienceCareers.com.
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