Justin Yerbury in the lab, January 2020.

Professor Justin Yerbury awarded $2.2M grant for MND study

Professor Justin Yerbury awarded $2.2M grant for MND study

Research program will increase understanding of disease progression, opening the door to new treatments

University of Wollongong (UOW) and Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) scientist Professor Justin Yerbury AM has been awarded a $2,238,220 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Investigator Grant for a five-year study into Motor Neurone Disease (MND).

The NHMRC awarded Professor Yerbury the Investigator Grant after he appealed its initial decision not to award the Grant. The appeal process found the NHMRC did not have an adequate policy to allow a fair ranking for medical researchers with permanent disabilities, such as Professor Yerbury who was diagnosed with MND in 2016.

The NHMRC has said it will review its grant application policy to better accommodate people with a disability, and that Professor Yerbury had been invited to provide input on the new policy.

A Professorial Fellow in Neurodegenerative Disease, Professor Yerbury is recognised internationally as a true pioneer in his field. Despite the challenges of living with MND, he has been unstinting in his efforts to find a cure for the disease.

The research program he leads has contributed to a paradigm shift in our understanding of disease progression in MND, a fatal neurodegenerative disease that causes motor neurons – the pathways between the brain and muscles – to degenerate and die.

MND, which is also known as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), develops when proteins in the body become misshapen, clump together, and block the pathways. The disease progresses rapidly and leaves patients with the inability to walk, talk and eventually breathe.

“Understanding the mechanism of how ALS spreads in the body is vital to designing therapeutics for the disease,” Professor Yerbury said.

“The research program this Investigator Grant will fund is a novel and innovative set of projects and strategic alliances built on my unique background in proteostasis and ALS research. The outcomes from this program will grow my own expertise and expand my team, but will also increase our knowledge around ALS biology.”

Proteostasis or protein homeostasis is the process that regulates proteins within and around the cell and keeps them functioning properly.

“This program will result in a fundamental shift in our understanding of ALS pathogenesis, with wider implications for understanding neurodegeneration in general,” Professor Yerbury said.

“With therapeutic targets for ALS in desperate need, the program and vision outlined here is strategically designed to allow a clear path to translational outcomes and will position us to make real impact on this significant health problem.”

UOW researcher Distinguished Professor Antoine van Oijen, Director of UOW’s Molecular Horizons, was also awarded an NHMRC Investigator Grant in the 2020 round.

His grant, announced earlier this year, is for $1,050,000 over five years, beginning in 2021, and is for a study into antimicrobial resistance.

Professor van Oijen’s study will advance our understanding of how microbial organisms gain resistance against antimicrobials and how the usefulness of existing antimicrobials can be increased by identifying novel drug targets to slow down mutational resistance.

The NHMRC Investigator Grant Scheme supports the research programs of outstanding investigators, allowing them to pursue innovative and creative research. It provides flexibility for investigators to pursue important new research directions as they arise and to form collaborations as needed.