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Biomedical innovation: Living cell therapies promise to cure multiple diseases and transform the future of medicine

Dr. Megan Levings knows we are close to a future where we will activate our body's own immune response to cure a breadth of diseases—from cancer to Type 1 diabetes, transplant rejection, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and other neurological conditions.

“With all diseases right now, we treat the symptoms,” says Dr. Levings, a professor in UBC’s department of surgery and School of Biomedical Engineering. “You might be temporarily stopping whatever is causing the problem—but you’re not treating the root cause.”

A world-leading researcher in T regulatory cells (Tregs), Dr. Levings and her team of co-investigators and graduate students have developed a gene therapy that programs Tregs, a type of immune cell, to recognize and accept transplanted tissue.

While a company tests these genetically modified Tregs in clinical trials with kidney transplant patients, Dr. Levings and her team are exploring how the fundamental biological mechanism of Tregs can be modified to treat other autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.

This living cell therapy—where living cells are taken from the body, manipulated in the lab and given back to the body—is an innovative way to harness and boost natural immune response to protect and heal the body from disease.

UBC researchers were key players in the development of a different type of living cell therapy, CAR-T cells for certain types of cancer. This highly precise, personalized and expensive treatment takes the body’s inflammatory T cells that fight against cancer and infections, reengineers them to recognize and kill cancer cells, and reintroduces them into the body, lengthening lives and bringing hope to cancer patients.

“In my research with Tregs, the dream is that patients wouldn’t need treatment anymore because we’ve reprogrammed their immune response,” says Dr. Levings. “If you add up all the people who have an autoimmune disease or a chronic inflammatory disease, it would be transformative for human health.”

While the potential for cell therapies to treat a wide range of conditions is enormous, more work is necessary to scale up research, manufacturing and clinical trials and also expand access for a greater number of patients.

“My lab has discovered a biological property of Tregs, but the practical reality of making those cells for use in humans requires biotechnology,” says Levings. “Right now, we work with less than a millilitre of cells in a small plastic dish, scaling up to the litres of cells needed for testing in humans requires specialized technology. This is biomedical innovation.”

UBC is working to establish the B.C. Advanced Therapeutics Manufacturing Facility, a state-of-the-art good manufacturing practice facility that would enable early stage cell therapy manufacturing at UBC, at the scale and quality required for products used in humans.

“This facility would be transformative on so many levels. It changes the league UBC can play in and takes our research to the next level by serving not only my lab, but labs across the university and province,” says Levings. “The reason we do biomedical research is to help treat human beings. Without this facility, there is no easy path forward from a discovery to this goal.”

The B.C. Advanced Therapeutics Manufacturing Facility will take discoveries made in UBC labs another step ahead to initial proof-of-concept in humans, giving patients in this province early access to experimental treatments through small-scale clinical trials and serving as a bio-innovation hub.

“To put a living drug into a human being, the quality needs to be pristine. This level of quality control requires highly qualified personnel and specialized equipment,” says Levings. “Donor funding to help build large pieces of infrastructure at UBC is game-changing in terms of what we can do in translational research.”

Dr. Levings’ goal is regulatory approval of the first living cell therapy for the treatment of at least one of the diseases she thinks can be cured by Tregs.

“What keeps me motivated is knowing we have this potentially transformative therapy and wanting to make sure it’s working the best—so we can move as quickly as possible to treat human beings in a way that’s safe and effective,” says Dr. Levings. “This would change the future for curing a lot of other autoimmune diseases.”

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