Do you know how the Academy Awards came to be named the Oscars? What about the story behind the Nobel prize? Behind every award name there is a story, and the Julia Levy Award is no exception.
On the face of it, the Julia Levy Award is about innovation in biomedical applications, but it is the stories of the winners of this SCI Canada award, and Julia Levy herself, that really give it life.
But for a tweak of history, Julia Levy may not have ended up in Canada at all. Born Julia Coppens in Singapore in 1934, she moved to Indonesia in her early childhood. Her father uprooted the family during the Second World War and she left for Vancouver with her mother and sister – her father only joining them after release from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
Julia and her family moved to Vancouver during the Second World War.
After studying bacteriology and immunology at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the young Julia received a PhD in experimental pathology from the University of London. She went on to become a professor at UBC and helped found biopharmaceutical company Quadra Logic Technologies in 1984.
More important than confining her achievements in cold prose, Julia Levy’s work made a profound difference to people’s lives. She developed a groundbreaking photodynamic therapy (PDT) that treated age-related macular degeneration – one of the leading causes of blindness in the elderly. She also created a bladder cancer drug called Photofrin in 1993 and, according to Neil and Susan Bressler, the Visudyne PDT treatment created by Julia and her colleagues was the only proven treatment for certain lesions.
Levy thrived in the business space too, serving as Chief Executive Officer and President of QLT from 1995 to 2001. She has since won a boatload of awards for her achievements, but sometimes the best testimonies come from those who have been inspired by her achievements.
For Helen Burt, winner of the 2022 Julia Levy Award and retired Angiotech Professor of Drug Delivery at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Julia has been an inspiration. Here was this UBC professor who jointly founded this big, exciting company – creating medication that improved people’s lives and showing her what was possible.
Helen, an English native, moved to Vancouver in 1976 for her PhD and loved it so much that she stayed. As a professor at UBC, Helen would become a trailblazer in drug delivery systems – a field pioneered earlier by Julia Levy.
‘I was a new assistant professor when she was building Quadra Logic and I would go to talks that she gave,’ Helen said. ‘Essentially, the early technology for QLT was a form of very sophisticated drug delivery [...] It was getting the drug they developed into the eye and irradiating it with light of a specific wavelength.
‘It was very, very targeted. And so, you didn’t get the drug going elsewhere in the body and causing unwanted side effects. So her technology was a form of very advanced drug delivery technology.’
‘For me to win an award that honours Julia Levy and her achievements – I think that's what makes it so special to me.’ – Professor Helen Burt, a former student of Julia Levy, is the Award's most recent recipient.
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These talks chimed with the young Helen. If a microbiologist could develop this kind of technology, what was stopping her from developing her own?
She, too, became a pioneer in her field, developing nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems (including those to treat cancer) and a novel drug-eluting coronary stent. According to Professor Laurel Schafer, who put Helen forward for the Julia Levy Award: ‘[Helen] was a trailblazer in new approaches for drug delivery and in research leadership on our campus.’
Professor Schafer is a hugely accomplished chemist in her own right; and the University of British Columbia chemistry professor’s achievements in catalysis discovery were recognised with the LeSueur Memorial Award at the 2020 Canada Awards.
Julia Levy provided an inspiration to Laurel too, in her case as an exemplar for what Canadian chemists could achieve. ‘The achievements of Julia Levy show that it really can be done right here in Canada, and even right here in British Columbia,’ she said. ‘I grew up in a Canada where I believed that better was elsewhere and our job was to attract better here – a very colonial attitude.
Julia studied at and later became a Professor at the University of British Columbia – the campus is pictured above.
‘I now believe and know that better is right here. Professor Levy’s work showed that world-leading contributions come from UBC and from the laboratories led by women.’
She noted that the Julia Levy Award acknowledges Canadian innovation in health science, whereas Canadian chemistry has historically focused on process chemistry in areas such as mining and petrochemicals.
But Julia Levy’s influence permeates beyond science. ‘Julia is one of those people who has been willing throughout her whole career – even now, well into her eighties – to give back to the community,’ Professor Burt says. ‘She mentors, she coaches, she sits on the boards of startup companies, and she advises.’
‘She’s just got this incredible amount of knowledge… She was the Chief Executive Officer [at QLT], so she learnt all of the aspects: the complex and sophisticated regulations, knowing how to find the right people to conduct clinical trials, and how to do the scale-up. She really is a legend in terms of giving back to the community. And this is not just in British Columbia – it’s Pan-Canadian.’
Pictured above: Julia Levy
For young chemists, the Julia Levy in the Julia Levy Award may just be a name for now, but for those in the Canadian chemical industry and patients all over the world, her influence and her work resonate.
As Professor Helen Burt said: ‘For me to win an award that honours Julia Levy and her achievements – I think that's what makes it so special to me.’
>> For more information on the Canada Awards, go to: https://bit.ly/3VMwNKa
What makes the Canada Awards so special, and which attributes do the winners share? We asked Bob Masterson, chair of SCI Canada’s Nominations Committee.
Bob Masterson, Chair, SCI Canada Nominations Committee
Why are the Canada Awards special to you?
The chemistry industry in Canada is an important industry – Canada’s third largest manufacturing sector with shipments of more than $80 billion (£48m approx.) a year. Behind that economic impact, however, are people. And, among those people are leaders.
The SCI Canada awards identifies both the lifetime leaders, as well as emerging student leaders in the business of chemistry. This serves to celebrate the achievements and inspire others in their pursuit of innovative chemistries.
What is so unique about the Canada Medal and what attributes have the previous winners had? Similarly, is there anything that binds the winners of these other prestigious awards?
The Canada Medal is unique in part due to its prosperity. It has been awarded since 1939. Looking at past Medal winners in aggregate, one can associate these individuals with being builders. Many individuals do good work in safely and efficiently operating their facilities. The Medal winners, however, are the builders.
They have attracted and deployed significant capital to build out the chemistry industry to ensure future prosperity for all Canadians. This is no small task in an industry dominated by global multinationals and very few truly domestic companies in Canada.
>> Find out more about the group and their awards on our SCI Canada Group page.
Would you mind explaining how the nominations committee comes to a decision on the award winners?
The Committee is made up of individuals with strong connections to industry and academia. They use their own experiences and solicit input from colleagues and other organisations to develop a list of potential candidates.
Committee members wishing to propose a candidate must prepare a short testimonial of why they have identified the candidate. The committee considers those testimonials while also looking for balance and diversity across industry and academia, Canada’s many regions, different types of chemistry, as well as representation across Canada’s highly diverse population.
The Canada Awards celebrate the best in Canadian chemistry.
Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to in the pre-awards seminar?
The seminar gives us an opportunity to step back and reflect on the role and opportunity of chemistry as Canada transitions to be more sustainable. I look forward to hearing experts and people’s views on the important question of how we get there and what chemistry can contribute.
Why will it be so important to stage the awards in person this year (if possible)?
This year looks to be a special year. It will have been four years since SCI Canada last held an in-person Awards program. We all need some real time with real people. It’s long overdue and, for many, will be the first in-person event of any kind in over two years. I am sure there will be a lot of emotions.
The SCI Canada Awards 2022 will be held on 5 May 2022, in Toronto. Register your attendance on our event page.
>> Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can read more of his work here.