Living drugs could be a game changer in fighting immune-based diseases
This story is part of the Forward happens here series.
Dr. Megan Levings and her team at UBC are engineering cell-based therapies that could transform the way we treat everything from Type 1 diabetes to multiple sclerosis
We often treat immune-based diseases with drugs that help alleviate symptoms. But what if we could target the root cause of these diseases by modifying our body’s cells instead?
That’s what Dr. Megan Levings and her team are researching at UBC. Cell-based therapies are one of the most exciting things happening in medicine today, and the team already has proof of concept that T regulatory cell therapy works in the lab. The next step is to see how it could benefit humans.
“The potential for T regulatory cell therapy is huge,” says Dr. Levings, a professor in UBC’s Department of Surgery and School of Biomedical Engineering. “It could be transformative for human health. Just think of all the diseases out there that are caused by too much inflammation.”
These include classic autoimmune diseases such Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Other diseases that involve an immune response include Parkinson’s disease and cardiovascular diseases. Cell therapy could also help make organ transplants safer by training the immune system to tolerate invaders.
This UBC research could fundamentally change the way we tackle a broad range of diseases.
Living drugs: a more precise way to treat diseases
Dr. Levings’ lab is a world leader in the study of a type of immune cells called T regulatory cells (Treg cells). These are white blood cells that prevent your body from mounting harmful immune responses against its own tissues.
“If you have an autoimmune disease, your problem is that your immune system has accidentally started to think a part of your body is dangerous,” Dr. Levings explains. “Your immune cells are attacking normal tissue.”
Dr. Levings’ goal is to train these cells to stop attacking normal functions by modifying the Treg cells themselves. “You basically take immune cells out of a person, manipulate them in the lab and then give them back into their blood with an IV infusion. That’s what we call a ‘living drug’—you’re giving back living cells.”
This approach differs from traditional chemical drugs, such as anti-inflammatory agents, which have a blanket effect on the body’s cells. Living Treg cells target the root problem more precisely and integrate with a network of other cells to create a holistic anti-inflammatory effect in the body.
“The idea behind cellular therapies is that when you give somebody a living cell, you’re not just giving them one drug, you’re giving them a whole series of biological pathways,” she explains. “By boosting a cellular component of the immune system, you’re hoping to give a cure, so that you reprogram the immune response in the long run, reducing the need for future treatment.”
Cellular therapies could be a game changer for people with diseases such as Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
Moving cell therapy forward
Another type of cellular therapy, CAR-T cell therapy, has already started to revolutionize the cancer realm. Cell therapy is a much more precise way to treat cancer than blunt and imprecise tools like chemotherapy and radiation, which may halt disease progression or manage symptoms, but can be harsh on the body and often do not cure the disease.
UBC has world-leading expertise in cancer immunology and in turning cells into living drugs, and has also brought a cell therapy for Type 1 diabetes to human testing. Dr. Levings’ work builds on this breakthrough work from other UBC researchers and benefits from multidisciplinary collaboration.
“With the incredible success of CAR-T cell therapy, we can now leverage the processes that were put in place by the cancer researchers and use them for our Treg cells,” she explains.
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Team science leads innovation
Dr. Levings’ lab is located at the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, which is a UBC research institute. “UBC attracts really amazing students who contribute to the lab’s important work,” she says. These include graduate students Macyn Leung and Christine Wardell, and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Manjurul Haque.
The UBC Faculty of Medicine sits within a thriving network of hospitals, research institutions and laboratories, partner universities, biotechnology firms, pharmaceutical companies and other industry collaborators located across Metro Vancouver and BC. UBC’s collaborative environment, filled with everyone from scientists to bioengineers, clinicians and trainees from a wide range of disciplines, helps to move research forward.
“Most investigators at UBC are more than happy to collaborate with you. They don’t close doors—they open them for you,” says Dr. Levings. “And if you have 20 people thinking about the same problem, you just get such a richer perspective.”
This multidisciplinary approach at UBC—spanning cell therapy to proteomics to mRNA to biomedical engineering—is driving biomedical innovation through scientific breakthroughs.
“To be in a place like UBC, where you can wake up in the morning and think of a question and if you’re not sure how to answer it, there’s somebody at the university who can help you answer it—that’s incredible,” says Dr. Levings.
From lab research to patient reality
It’s a long pathway from proof of concept in a lab to an approved therapy for human use. But UBC’s collaborative environment can speed the process of mobilizing new biotechnologies. That’s crucial for patients and their families, because it means patients get access to life-saving drugs sooner.
Commercialization is key to getting a new generation of therapies to the people who need them. Dr. Levings’ Treg cell treatment entered human clinical trials in 2022, where its efficacy is being tested in kidney transplant patients. And she is leading efforts to establish an in-house Good Manufacturing Practices facility at UBC that will enable local manufacturing and testing of advanced therapeutics such as cell therapies.
That means breakthrough medicines and treatments will help save more lives sooner. Ultimately, that’s what drives Dr. Levings in her work—and all the exciting biomedical innovation happening at UBC.