Julia Levy

You’ve left the board of QLT Inc., the biotech firm you helped found, and are now a director of Cannasat Therapeutics, based in Toronto. What’s it like switching from an eye drug to a pot-based pain reliever?
I find the cannabinoid group of compounds extremely interesting—with extraordinary physiological activities that have nothing to do with the pot effect. I’ve seen clinical data showing extraordinary effects on schizophrenia. And the pain relief is real, though a lot of people are still disbelievers. Physicians prescribe ever-increasing amounts of morphine, for example, which is so damaging—it’s addictive, it causes horrible constipation, it can cause vomiting. Meanwhile, cannabis does not have these side effects.

“Cannabinoids” instead of “cannabis,” or “pot”—isn’t this just semantic wordplay to use with regulators?
The cannabinoid drug we’re developing for use in schizophrenia, CAT 320, is chemically distinct from cannabis. It doesn’t have psychotropic effects. There’s a whole raft of mental disorders that could be acted on by this type of molecule. It’s been difficult to do research on the CAT 310 pain reliever because of the political stigma. And it’s worse in the U.S.—you can’t even do clinical trials there.

You’ve been sitting on government boards since the ’70s. How would you characterize federal support for biotech?

Where government could help is by looking at regulations that small companies have to go through to bring a product forward. Getting things into the clinic in this country can take way longer than in the States. Here, you put in an application and it can sit there for 60 days; then they’ll scan it, pull out a few things they can question you on; then the time clock starts again. When a small company has raised venture capital and has milestones to meet, four months can kill them.

Isn’t drug development particularly risky?

This is a generation of fearful people, as opposed to my generation. There’s so much fear around—it’s not good for us. I’m a bit of a maverick, I suppose. I hate following rules. I like danger and challenges. If you’re going to be entrepreneurial, you can’t be too safe.

Are the rewards commensurate?

The cannabinoids are exciting because you realize this is going to change the world. Then you have to go through all the dreary development stuff, all the toxicology—you have to learn to be so patient—then finally you get to the in-man experiments. I remember when the first person with macular degeneration treated with Visudyne, the QLT drug, got effects—it was the best moment of my life. I should say the birth of my children was more exciting, but you’re tired, you feel like crap, you’re fearful. This was a pure moment of absolute ecstasy.