Eliminating the need for anti-rejection drugs

Making organ transplants safer

Dr. Megan Levings and her team are training the immune system to tolerate invaders. Their work could reduce the need for immunosuppressive drugs — and vastly improve patients’ quality of life.

Dr. Megan Levings and her team have developed genetically modified Treg cells that could one day be used to treat many different autoimmune diseases.

It’s often said about organ transplants that by fixing one problem you are creating another.

That’s because transplant recipients must take powerful immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their lives to ensure their bodies do not reject the new organ — putting them at risk for serious side effects.

But there is hope.

Dr. Megan Levings, a professor in UBC’s department of surgery and School of Biomedical Engineering, is leading groundbreaking work to demonstrate that the immune system can be trained to ignore specific triggers.

“The problem with anti-rejection drugs is that they suppress all immune responses, leaving the patient vulnerable to chronic infections and cancers, even as the drugs protect the lifesaving transplant,” says Dr. Levings.

Dr. Levings’s Treg cell treatment enters human clinical trials in 2022, where its efficacy will be tested in kidney transplant patients.

She and her team at UBC have developed a gene therapy that programs regulatory T cells (Tregs) — a type of immune cell that controls the body’s response to healthy tissues — to recognize and accept transplanted tissue, while allowing the immune system to function normally in every other respect.

These genetically modified Tregs are entering human clinical trials in 2022, where their efficacy will be tested in kidney transplant patients. If the trial is successful, the therapy could reduce transplant recipients’ need for immunosuppressant drugs and vastly improve their quality of life.

Meanwhile, Dr. Levings and her team are exploring how Tregs can be modified to treat other autoimmune diseases such as Type-1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease — and beyond. 

“The potential is broader than one might think, because so many diseases we don’t normally associate with autoimmune disorders are T cell-mediated to some extent,” Dr. Levings explains.

“Ten years from now, we could see Treg therapy used to treat cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s because these diseases also have an immune-mediated component and Treg therapy is readily translatable and scalable.”