Australian philanthropist John Laidlaw has made it his mission to give back to those in need, but it was a cause closest to his heart that brought him to Wollongong for the first time on Tuesday.
The former head of the iconic Hard Yakka clothing line was at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) to hear a research update on motor neurone disease – the degenerative condition his wife Betty has lived with since 1984.
He’s donated more than $2 million into research into MND, which has contributed to the research being carried out by Professor Justin Yerbury at the University of Wollongong based institute.
“My wife has primary lateral sclerosis, a very rare form of motor neurone disease that progresses slowly,” Mr Laidlaw said.
“Now she can’t talk, she can’t walk … it’s a terrible disease to have but my wife battles it very well. But we need to know more about the disease and how to treat it.
“My wife got it more than 30 years ago when she was as fit as could be … and it’s pretty much a mystery still.”
Prof Yerbury has dedicated his career to unravelling that mystery, which has devastated his family. In one six-week period his mother, grandmother and aunt all died from the disease and he has also lost a sister, an uncle and a cousin to the disease.
In 2017 – 18 months after he was diagnosed with the condition himself – he was awarded the $250,000 Betty Laidlaw MND Research Prize by the Motor Neurone Disease Institute of Australia.
“What drives me is not the fact that I have been diagnosed, but the fact that every day in Australia two more people are diagnosed and another two die from MND. It needs to stop,” he said.
“The very generous funding from the Betty Laidlaw prize has been used to drive a project to investigate the proteins that are needed at the very end of motor neurons where they would synapse with other cells to pass on the electrical signal that would normally make your muscles move.
“We have been able to study motor neurons made from MND patients’ skin cells in a dish thanks to the expertise of Associate Professor Lezanne Ooi and her team. We are still collecting data and we hope to have the project wrapped up by the end of the year.”
The research has also been boosted by an appeal set up by the University of Wollongong last November, which has already raised $30,000.
“There has been an amazing response to the MND research appeal and the funding raised will allow us to test our ideas on a direction for a therapeutic strategy,” Prof Yerbury said.
“The idea is to super charge our bodies own system to recycle proteins to reduce the accumulation of faulty proteins in MND.”
Mr Laidlaw and his four children hope research like this brings hope to those – like their wife and mother – who receive a diagnosis of MND. And leads to better treatment, and even a cure.
“My mum started getting symptoms when I was 18 and finishing Year 12,” Mrs Duggan said. “We’d been on a trip to Europe and she’d started tripping on cobblestones.
“Back then no-one knew what MND was so it took about five years for her to get diagnosed.
“The exposure now being brought to the disease, thanks to people like Justin Yerbury, is amazing. And the research is incredible.”
Incredible too is the generosity of donors like John Laidlaw.
“It is incredibly hard to get funding for this type of research, so we rely heavily on donations to keep this work going,” Prof Yerbury said.