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LEEF Research Chairs
 

Backgrounder:

December 2, 2009
Ministry of Small Business, Technology and Economic Development The University of British Columbia

JULIA LEVY B.C. LEADERSHIP CHAIR IN MACULAR RESEARCH

What is macular degeneration?

  • Macular degeneration is the deterioration of the macula, a highly specialized and important part of the retina at the back of the eye. The retina converts light to electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain, and the macula enables detailed vision and colour appreciation.
  • When the macula degenerates, problems with central vision – such as blurriness, dark areas or distortion – can occur. For many people, macular degeneration makes activities such as reading and driving, or even seeing faces, difficult or impossible.
  • There are different forms of macular degeneration, but age-related macular degeneration is the most common. It affects an estimated one million Canadians and is the leading cause of severe vision loss in the developed world.
  • Age-related macular degeneration affects more Canadians than breast cancer, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease combined.
  • Macular degeneration is most common in people over the age of 50, although it can affect people at a younger age. Juvenile macular degeneration affects about one in 7,000 individuals.
  • Given the aging of Canada’s population, age-related macular degeneration is becoming an increasingly important public health issue. The number of people with age-related macular degeneration in this country is expected to double within the next 25 years.
  • The cause of age-related macular degeneration is unknown, but smoking, a family history of the condition, female gender and lighter skin colour are all considered risk factors.
  • Regular comprehensive eye exams can detect macular degeneration before the disease causes vision loss.

What is retinitis pigmentosa?

  • Retinitis pigmentosa is group of inherited eye diseases that cause degeneration of specific retinal cells or layers leading to progressive, permanent loss of vision in the early adult years.

Cost of vision loss in Canada

  • The estimated annual direct and indirect cost of vision loss in Canada totals $7.9 billion according to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
  • Dr. Kevin Gregory-Evans

    • Dr. Kevin Gregory-Evans is a world authority on genetic factors in retinal eye disorders. He has published 65 research papers, as well as 11 review articles, in U.K. and U.S. peer-reviewed research journals, and nine chapters in leading specialist books on eye disease. 
    • His laboratory investigations include:
    • 1. Clinical Trials in Macular Degeneration Gregory-Evans will work with pharmaceutical companies to bring new treatments for macular degeneration to trial. He is also examining links between genetic defects underlying macular degeneration and patient biomarkers to improve methods for matching patients to treatments.

      2. Cell-Based Drug Delivery to the Retina – Gregory-Evans is developing cell-based drug delivery techniques that will limit the need for repeated drug injections into the eye.

      3. Molecular Defects Underlying Retinal Disease – Many of the most common causes of retinal disease arise from genetic abnormality. Gregory-Evans will continue to explore and identify genes underlying retinal disease. The results will improve methods of diagnosis and lead to new therapeutic targets.

    Laboratory facilities

    • The VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation continues to raise funding to expand lab facilities at the Eye Care Centre at VGH.
    • The fundraising goal is $6 million, and to date, donors have made gifts totalling $3.2 million toward the lab facilities.

    Laboratory associates

    • Dr. Cheryl Y. Gregory-Evans, also from Imperial College and Western Eye Hospital in London, U.K., is joining UBC as an associate professor in the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences, and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute.
    • Her recruitment is supported by the late Sharon Stewart, who provided funding during her lifetime to UBC research into aniridia, a congenital condition characterized by underdevelopment of the iris.
    • Cheryl Gregory-Evans’ research interests are molecular mechanisms in developmental defects of the eye and central nervous system.
    • She is currently setting up a team of researchers involving collaborations with UBC investigators, including professor Joanne Matsubara and assistant professor Orson Moritz, both of the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences, and assistant professor Urs Hafeli of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

    FUNDING PARTNERS

    The Province of British Columbia has invested more than $1.7 billion in research and innovation since 2001. This includes $56.25 million to establish 29 permanent research chairs under the Leading Edge Endowment Fund – some of the best-funded research chairs in Canada.  Post-secondary institutions and external partners provide matching funding. For more information, visit www.leefbc.ca.

    The UBC Faculty of Medicine provides innovative programs in the health and life sciences, teaching students at the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate levels, and generates more than $200 million in research funding each year. In 2007-08, out of the total UBC research endeavour, 53 per cent, or $247 million, came from academic and clinical teams in the Faculty of Medicine. For more information, visit www.med.ubc.ca.

    Julia Levy and QLT Inc. – QLT Inc. (formerly Quadra Logic Technologies), was founded in 1981 to develop and commercialize discoveries made at UBC in the fields of immunology and diagnostics. UBC microbiology professor Julia Levy co-founded the spinoff company and served as president and CEO from 1996 to 2002.

    A biopharmaceutical company, QLT is dedicated to developing and commercializing innovative ocular therapies. QLT uses two unique technology platforms: photodynamic therapy (used with Visudyne) and punctal plugs (a novel sustained-release drug delivery platform that may have applications in various ocular disorders).

    QLT became a public company in 1986, and the potential of photodynamic therapy was first realized in Photofrin, which was first approved in 1995 for esophageal cancer and has since received approvals for treating Barrett’s esophagus and advanced non-small cell lung cancer.  Photofrin was sold to Axcan Pharma Inc. in 2000.

    In 2000, QLT received FDA approval for Visudyne, a breakthrough treatment co-developed by Levy for the wet form of age-related macular degeneration. Visudyne is approved in over 80 countries worldwide for the treatment of a form of wet age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 55, and has been used in more than two million treatments worldwide.

    Under Levy’s leadership, the company recorded the greatest financial growth in its history. At the time of its launch, Visudyne was the largest ophthalmic product launch on record, with sales of $150 million in the first 12 months.

    QLT has gone on to become UBC’s most successful spinoff.  UBC has received over $70 million in royalties from the sales of Visudyne. According to Angus Livingstone, managing director of UBC’s University-Industry Liaison Office, more than 200 UBC academic papers were either sponsored by or done in collaboration with QLT and its founders.

    QLT continues to study the effectiveness of Visudyne in patients with wet age-related macular degeneration by exploring its use in combination with the class of therapeutics known as anti-VEGF drugs. The punctal plug drug delivery system is being developed with the goal of delivering a variety of drugs topically to the eye through controlled sustained release to the tear film, initially targeting the treatment of glaucoma and ocular hypertension. The synthetic retinoid compound is being developed for the potential treatment of Leber’s congenital amaurosis, an inherited progressive retinal degenerative disease that leads to retinal dysfunction and visual impairment beginning at birth.

    Levy is now a UBC professor emerita of microbiology and sits on several boards of directors of biotech companies and non-profit organizations.

    OTHER PARTNERS

    The Eye Care Centre at Vancouver General Hospital provides examinations, diagnosis and treatment. In 2009, almost 5,300 surgical procedures were conducted at the Eye Care Centre, 1,700 at VGH operating rooms and 350 at UBC Hospital. More than 1,000 laser procedures were performed and 25,000 diagnostic procedures conducted. The Eye Care Centre at VGH is a site of Vancouver Coastal Health.

    The Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute is one of Canada’s top-funded health sciences research centres, with $136 million in total research funding for 2007-2008.  The institute is the research arm of Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and the health partner of the University of British Columbia. VCH Research Institute’s major programs include the Vancouver Prostate Centre, the Brain Research Centre, the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, and the Ovarian Cancer Research Program. For more information, visit www.vchri.ca.

    The Brain Research Centre comprises more than 200 investigators with multidisciplinary expertise in neuroscience research ranging from the test tube to the bedside to industrial spinoffs. The centre is a partnership of UBC and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. For more information, visit www.brain.ubc.ca.

    The Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics is a synergistic group of scientists and researchers who share a strong sense of commitment to solve the many genetic questions surrounding human illness and well being. Affiliated with UBC and the Child & Family Research Institute, the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics conducts discovery research and translates that research into effective clinical and therapeutic strategies to promote health. For more information, visit www.cmmt.ubc.ca.  

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Media contact:

Contact:

Carolyn Heiman

Communications Manager Ministry of Small Business, Technology and Economic Development
250 952-0152 / cell 250 888-3545

Brian Lin

Senior Communications Co-ordinator
UBC Public Affairs Office
604 822-2234
604 818-5685 (cell)

Lisa Carver

Regional Communications Leader
Vancouver Coastal Health/Research Institute
604 875-4111 ext 61777
604 319-7533 (cell)

For more information on government services or to subscribe to the Province’s news feeds using RSS, visit the Province’s website at www.gov.bc.ca.

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