On International Women’s Day Meet Canadian Scientist Julia Levy


VANCOUVER, CANADA  #IWD2018  #WomenInMicrobiology

Dr. Julia Levy’s research at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s led to the development of photodynamic therapy (PDT), initially for the treatment of cancer.

Julia Levy was born in Singapore. Her father was captured by the Japanese during WWll and put into a POW camp. Just before this, her mother had escaped to Vancouver with Julia and another daughter.

Inspired by her grade 11 biology teacher, a woman, Julia went on to obtain her BA in biology from the University of British Columbia, her PhD in experimental pathology from University College London, and after grauation became a professor of microbiology at UBC.

Together with her colleagues at UBC they developed photosensitive drugs which, upon being exposed to light, change in a way that makes them toxic to cells. The initial targets were cancer cells: cancers of the skin, lung, esophagus, stomach, bladder and cervix.

Dr. Levy also formed her own company, embarking on research that broadened the reach of PDT to treat other diseases such as skin infections, arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and – perhaps the most promising target – age-related macular degeneration. “It’s way beyond cancer,” Levy tells science.ca, excited about the potential to cure other diseases with this technology.

But here’s what’s most impressive about Dr. Levy – the impulse that led to her corporate success:

In 1986 she was giving a talk to some doctors in Waterloo, Ontario about her work on new light-activated drugs. The doctors were trying these drugs on cancer patients and they were very upset because Johnson & Johnson was closing down their drug development program which appeared to be effective against cancer. Many people were being helped by this technology, but soon they would not be able to get the drug. “It was a very upsetting experience for me,” says Levy, who until that point had worked on these drugs only in a laboratory. “For the first time, I became aware that we were talking about real patients being treated for real cancer.” And so right then and there Levy decided that “We’ve got to do something.” So she made a deal with J & J, raised $15 million, and took over the Canadian subsidiary. It was a major turning point for Levy and her company – and for cancer patients in Canada.

These days she lives a varied life. Some days are spent in meetings with other companies, others reading scientific literature, still others meeting her colleagues to work out business strategies. Levy likes everything about her work – except the travelling and talking to investors.

Looking back on it all, Dr. Levy is quick to credit the value of teamwork: “Well, when I look at it I think … me? And a lot of other people – you can’t do it alone.” And despite the wealth she has generated says, convincingly, “I’ve never found money to be a compelling reason to do anything.”








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