Fighting MND on two fronts

Prof Justin Yerbury is fighting a war against MND on two fronts: in the laboratory at IHMRI and in his own nervous system.



Story By

Veronica Apap and Ben Long

The campaign to raise funds for Motor Neurone Disease (MND) research at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute has received a boost from Professor Justin Yerbury and his family who have pledged $35,000 to fund a PhD scholarship.

  • Hear Prof Justin Yerbury discuss his MND research at a UOW Knowledge Series lecture in May.

Prof Justin Yerbury is fighting a war against MND on two fronts: in the laboratory at IHMRI and in his own nervous system. The molecular biologist is now confined to a wheelchair but continues to press ahead with work to find a treatment, and one day a cure, for MND.

In November 2018, an appeal was launched to raise money for the work conducted by Prof Yerbury and his team. The response by the Australian public was incredible. Within weeks of the appeal launching, the University of Wollongong received more than $27,000 towards the $30,000 goal. Since the beginning of 2019 we have now surpassed the original goal and have raised more than $37,000 for this important work.

In addition to the public appeal, Prof Yerbury and his family had given $10,000 to fund a 2019 PhD scholar and this year pledged a further $25,000 over the next two and a half years.

The funding will help the IHMRI team conduct pre-clinical trials of new therapies and drugs with the aim of turning MND into a treatable condition rather than a death sentence.

  • Join a boot camp workout with Biggest Loser trainer Commando Steve to raise money for MND research at UOW. Click here for details.

An Australian Story documentary on Prof Yerbury’s life, The Enemy Within, aired on ABC TV in March 2018, inspiring thousands of viewers with the story of his journey from professional basketball player to neuroscientist.

The Enemy Within was the second highest rating episode of Australia Story that year in November, a follow-up episode aired documenting Professor Yerbury’s return to work following life-prolonging surgery.

MND causes progressive degeneration of motor neurones in the brain and spinal cord. People with the disease progressively lose the use of their arms and legs, their ability to speak, swallow and breathe.

Approximately 2,000 Australians are living with MND. From diagnosis, their life expectancy can be counted in years or even months with the fingers on one hand.

In a minority of cases, around 10 per cent, there is a genetic link to the disease with members of the same family contracting it. For most people diagnosed with MND, however, the disease takes hold without warning.

Prof Yerbury’s interest in MND began when several members of his family were diagnosed with it. In one six-week period his mother, grandmother and aunt all died from the disease. He has also lost a sister, an uncle and a cousin to the disease.

In order to better understand MND, Justin undertook a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Wollongong (UOW), graduating with first-class honours in 2004, and going on to receive a PhD from UOW in 2008.

He now leads a team of scientists at IHMRI that is researching neuro-degeneration and MND.

In May 2016, Prof Yerbury was diagnosed with MND.

“What drives me is not the fact that I’ve been diagnosed with this disease – it’s trying to wipe this thing off the planet,” Prof Yerbury said.

“MND has taken away my ability to walk, talk, move and breathe on my own – but it has not taken away my mind, my passion for research, or my determination to see MND as a treatable condition rather than a death sentence.”

The work of Prof Yerbury and his team focuses on understanding the molecular events that trigger MND. They have found that the way motor neurones handle their protein balance is a key factor in MND.

Senior Research Assistant Natalie Farrawell is part of Prof Yerbury’s team at IHMRI and shares his dedication to finding a way to treat MND.

“Every piece of information gained from our research helps us better understand what’s happening in MND and is an important step towards finding a cure for this insidious disease,” Ms Farrawell said.

“The next step is to translate that information into therapies and develop drugs that could slow the process of motor neurone disease.”

Testing potential therapies is a lengthy and expensive process, however, and one that is difficult to get funding for.

“We rely heavily on funding from philanthropic donations to keep this work going,” Prof Yerbury said.

“Donations will get us closer to testing our ideas in pre-clinical trials, and closer to having a new therapeutic strategy for MND.”

Justin Yerbury’s MND Appeal raised $37,948 thanks to the contributions of 229 donors. In 2018, MND research at UOW also received support from the Ladies Back on Your Bike challenge ride which raised $16,455, and guests of Director of the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute, Professor Gordon Wallace, made donations of $10,000 on his behalf for his birthday.

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