Wollongong researchers are helping unlock the mystery surrounding motor neurone disease, and their findings may one day lead to an effective treatment for the deadly condition.
Dr Justin Yerbury, from the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI), has led a team of researchers in an international study into the disease which affects around 2000 Australians.
Dr Yerbury said the research focused on determining the cause of the disorder, in which the nerve cells (neurones) controlling the muscles that enable us to move, speak, breathe and swallow begin to degenerate and die.
‘’One of the biggest questions in the field of MND is trying to understand why, out of all the billions of neurons in the brain, why motor neurones die in the case of MND,’’ he said.
‘’If we understand why they die that will help us preserve them, and that will hopefully lead to an effective treatment to slow the progression of the disease down.’’
Currently there is no effective treatment, nor cure, and most people with MND die within three to five years of diagnosis. Some beat the odds – most notably British physicist and cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with the condition over 50 years ago.
If we understand why they die that will help us preserve them, and that will hopefully lead to an effective treatment.Dr Justin Yerbury
For Dr Yerbury, who met with Professor Hawking at the University of Cambridge in April, it’s also a personal mission with a number of family members tragically passing away from the disease including his grandmother, mother and sister.
He’s spent most of the past decade researching MND and with the latest project – which focuses on the protein molecules found in motor neurons – he’s gained some new insights.
Specifically, the researchers discovered that proteins that do not normally interact gather into deposits within motor neurons.
‘’The information we’ve got from studying the protein deposits that can be found in motor neurons tells us something very specific about how they were formed and why they occurred in motor neurons and not in other nerve cells,’’ he said.
‘’Knowing what is inside these protein deposits might help us with diagnosis – and treatment – in the future.’’
The team is now actively testing potential therapeutics with IHMRI research fellow Dr Kara Vine.