From Lab Coat to Power Suits: One Women’s Journey in Science Success

Dec. 16, 2020


Turning in her lab coat for a business suit was never part of Julia Levy’s career plan.

Her world was test tubes and the battle against disease, not profit and loss statements and the endless battle for another few pennies a share in profits.

In 1995, however, she made the leap from the lab to the boardroom of the company she had helped found and, as a result, helped create one of Canada’s leading biotech success stories.

Her success was even more remarkable because it all happened in the days when a woman was still more likely to be taken for the company CEO’s secretary than the boss herself.

Levy, 86, tells her story in a new memoir, In Sight: My Life in Science and  Health Innovation, recently published by University of Toronto Press. As well the personal story of a woman’s life spent in search of new medicines, it’s the tale of how Canada carved out a place for itself in the world of biotechnology.

“I thought it might be a useful thing to do for other people wanting to go into the biotechnology field in Canada,” Levy told the CJR in an interview from her home in British Columbia. “It gives the background to what it’s like to be an academic and then move into business. That is quite often quite counter to what a basic scientist thinks is important in their lives.

“If I had been asked in 1970 if I could envisage myself going into a business and being successful at it, I would have thought people were certifiably crazy,” she added. “I never had any inclination to do that at all because my big passion was science and teaching science. I loved to do that. Perhaps the memoir is my final lesson in teaching about science and technology.”

Born in Singapore and sent to Canada with her mother and sister as refugees just ahead of the Second World War, Levy was raised in Vancouver and graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1955 with a BA in immunology and bacteriology. She followed that with a doctorate in experimental pathology from the University of London before returning to UBC as an assistant professor in 1959.

In those days, she said, life could be difficult for a woman in science.

“I was a woman doing graduate work in the 1950s. The world has changed a lot, but it also hasn’t changed a lot,” she reflected. “I certainly suffered from that when I was in graduate school. The gender bias comes in, and the harassment and all of the unpleasantness that women have to put up with. It’s much worse when you’re just starting out.

“The other thing of course is the assumptions people make when you are starting out. If you’re a young woman and you’re at a scientific meeting and you’ve got a faculty position and you’re on your way, you have a lab of your own, you would still automatically get the question, ‘whose lab do you work in?’ That happened to me so many times.”

In the world of science, however, that pettiness falls away with time and a record of achievement in research papers published, she went on.

“That kind of harassment and bias tends to go away in science because your accomplishments are readily quantifiable. You can say on a piece of paper, ‘I published this many papers this year in these kind of journals,’ and there is no way anyone with a bias who wants to hold you back can do that,” Levy said.

Levy spent 27 years pursuing knowledge in her UBC lab, but two developments in the 1980s changed her life’s trajectory entirely.

The first happened on land, where she and her husband, Edwin (Ed) Levy, a physicist at UBC, were planning to build a vacation home. As related in a company history, in getting ready for that cottage, Levy gave her seven-year-old son Ben a machete and let him clear weeds on the property. One of those weeds was a plant called cow parsley, and Ben attacked it with such enthusiasm, his skin was soon covered in fluid that, when exposed to the sun, caused the skin to blister.

Intrigued, Levy learned that a substance in cow parsley’s leaves can attack and destroy certain kinds of tissue, skin cells included, when activated by exposure to light.

She started to think about the potential of photo-activated drugs and embarked on research that lead to her co-invention of photodynamic therapy (PDT).

What she helped to develop was a two-step process that started with an injection of a drug that collected around abnormal blood vessels. The drug could then be activated by a dose of non-thermal laser light, triggering a process that destroyed abnormal cells.

Seeing great potential for this kind of drug in treating cancer and other conditions, Levy and colleagues John Brown, Jim Miller, Anthony Phillips, and Ron MacKenzie formed a company they called Quadra Logic Technologies, now QLT Inc.

The company’s initial financing came from its founders, with Levy mortgaging her home to raise capital. That was after they approached UBC and a number of investment banks.

“It was a pretty naive scene in the early ‘80s, when biotech was just barely rolling in the U.S. and Canada,” she recalled. “The biggest thing was that investment money in Canada in those days was all resource based. The banks either hadn’t heard of biotech or thought it was pretty squirrely.”

QLT’s initial office and lab was over a Vancouver bakery where the founders worked after hours to turn their ideas into marketable drugs. In 1985, that search took on a personal element for Levy when her mother began to develop age-related macular degeneration, an incurable deterioration of the central portion of the retina and a leading cause of blindness in people over age 50.

Levy noticed that, like cancer, the eye condition manifested itself by forming new, abnormal tissues. Finding a way to attack those tissues with the light-activated drugs became her mission.

It took 15 years, but by 2000, that work resulted in regulatory approval for Visudyne, a drug that became QLT’s signature achievement.

“With Visudyne we had no competition for the first few years; I mean we sold a million dollars worth of the drug on the first day it was approved. It was hundreds of millions of dollars a year that we were making,” Levy said. “It was a very big product and the company was valued at over a billion dollars because of it.”

Julia Levy, David Dolphin, Visudyne
Julia Levy with David Dolphin, creator of the Visudyne molecule, in 1990

Visudyne was released in April 2000. By the end of the second quarter of that year, sales hit $25 million and more than doubled within a year to $56 million as the drug spread to more than 50 countries.

During Visudyne’s tortured trial and approval process, the other founders of the company had left and it was decided Levy should take over as president rather than risk bringing in someone entirely new.

“I felt comfortable doing that because by that time our company was quite mature and we had a great finance department and good human resources, we had all the divisions properly taken care of with senior people who knew what they were doing,” she said. “To find someone who was up to speed to take over was just impossible. We were working very well as a team so at that point I said I would do it. It was the right thing to do.”

Levy held the top position until 2002, leading the company through a period of explosive growth before stepping down. She continued to serve on the board of directors until 2006, when she became director emerita, and was actively involved with its scientific advisory board until 2008, when she retired from QLT entirely.

Today, she remains actively involved in mentoring and investing in early stage life sciences ventures and serves as an advisor to several academic and non-profit programs.

Her scientific reputation has been marked with seven honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, research chairs in her honour at Johns Hopkins University and the University of British Columbia departments of ophthalmology. In addition, the Chemical Institute of Canada awards the Julia Levy Award for successful commercialization of innovation in the field of biomedical science and engineering.

Beyond its actual products, Levy said she hopes QLT has helped create a vibrant biotech industrial scene in Vancouver.

“There were no role models when we started, but today, the biotech scene in Vancouver carries the hallmarks of the QLT experience,” she said. “I think that’s one of the best things that we did was to help create that environment where other people flourished too.”