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Donors’ dream for people with multiple sclerosis launches a new era of research at UBC

The new MS Research Network will bring innovative treatment options to BC patients sooner.

On a sunny spring day, at a picnic table outdoors on the deserted UBC Vancouver campus during the pandemic, local philanthropists inspired Dr. Dermot Kelleher to come up with an ambitious and innovative plan to tackle multiple sclerosis (MS).

“Our donors had a vision that aligned with ours, but importantly, they also brought the patient perspective and challenged us to do something special that would impact patients’ lives,” says Dr. Kelleher, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Vice-President, Health at UBC.

The donors came to the right place, at the right time.

At UBC, research is a team sport

Dr. Kelleher gathered a team of experts in clinical neurology, immune cell biology and biomedical engineering to look at the problem from different angles and identify a promising solution—cell-based therapies.

These living drugs are filled with all the proteins and genes of a normal cell, engineered to activate the immune system to attack harmful cells like cancer, or the opposite, to turn off inappropriate immune responses and keep the immune system quiet.

“The success of cell therapy in cancer has shown the world what is possible and has opened the door to use similar approaches in autoimmunity,” says Dr. Megan Levings, Professor in the Department of Surgery and School of Biomedical Engineering at UBC, and world-leading expert in immune cell therapies.

The donors made a $33.8 million gift to the UBC Faculty of Medicine and VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation to establish the BC MS Cell Therapies Translational Research Network—the largest known donation for MS research and care worldwide.

Focused on improving lives

“The impact of this gift is enormous,” says Dr. Anthony Traboulsee, Professor in the Division of Neurology at UBC and neurologist in the MS Clinic at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health. “It’s not just people in BC who will benefit, and it’s not just people with MS. Whatever is discovered for MS is going to benefit all autoimmune diseases. And if some of these therapies could lead to repair—that’s my dream—any type of neurologic disease could benefit from this medicine.”

MS is a common neurologic disease that affects about 10,000 people in BC at the prime of their lives. Patients deal with various symptoms such as loss of vision, balance, sensation, concentration, mental functioning and energy, altering their family lives and ability to work. Other autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn’s and celiac disease affect millions of people worldwide.

“I’ve been in medicine for 50 years. I’ve never seen a time as exciting as right now,” says Dr. Kelleher. “It’s particularly exciting because I’m here at UBC, where we have such outstandingly creative, innovative, collaborative, collegial and human investigators focused on better health and wellness for all people.”

At the time of made-in-BC biotech

The UBC Faculty of Medicine is developing an innovative ecosystem by partnering across the province and internationally with biotechnology companies, major pharmaceutical companies, health authorities, government and non-governmental organizations with similar goals and values.

Today, many of the technologies that underlie advanced therapeutics emerge from university laboratories and small biotechnology companies. For example, the technologies that enabled the first antibody treatment for COVID came from AbCellera, a UBC spin-off company, and the lipid nanoparticle technology used in the COVID vaccines came from the laboratory of Dr. Peter Cullis, Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UBC, and a company he founded called Acuitas Therapeutics.

The School of Biomedical Engineering at UBC is generating capabilities in cellular and molecular engineering, biomanufacturing, bioprocessing, and computational biology to accelerate the development of next-generation therapeutics and train the next generation of leaders in this area.

“This gift creates a foundation we will build on to ensure the new therapies and technologies that emerge will provide new opportunities for British Columbians to get early access,” says Dr. Peter Zandstra, Director of the School of Biomedical Engineering. “This is going to be a made-in-B.C. solution. The trainees, students and faculty members that are working on this effort will make their home and bring their technologies here, and I think that will have a big impact.”

Discoveries move from lab to clinic

Dr. Levings sees philanthropy as a bridge between scientific discovery in the lab and the translation of new knowledge into patient impact, in this case through the process of biomanufacturing engineered cells for testing in early-stage clinical trials. She says, “It’s immeasurable the contribution donor funding can make toward bringing translational medicine to reality.”

At UBC right now, imaginative people who understand the mechanisms of disease are working with those who understand the clinical features and those who understand how to apply technology to biological problems. Together, they will find creative solutions to diseases that cause profound human suffering.

“In my view, cell therapies that are being developed now are a revolution, much like the discovery of insulin, antibiotics and modern therapies for cancer,” says Dr. Traboulsee. “Now, what the world of cell therapies could do, not only for cancer but for people with autoimmune diseases, I think it’s going to be endless. Over the next decade, we’re going to see major advances in medicine and people’s health because of this new therapy.”

To support bio-innovation and translational medicine at UBC, please contact Erin Bartlett at erin.bartlett@ubc.ca.

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