Promising progress for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) research

Over the last 12 months, world-renowned Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) researcher, Professor Justin Yerbury AM’s achievements have been varied but rewarding. Professor Yerbury and his team of dedicated researchers are moving closer to identifying a sweet spot for their combination therapy for ALS, and will soon be testing the safety of the doses they have selected. In another project, they have been able to safely and temporarily open the blood-brain barrier, allowing more efficient delivery of drugs to the nervous system. And the team have applied for a patent for a therapy for an inherited form of ALS.

The support of the UOW donor community means a lot to Professor Yerbury and his team.

“We appreciate all support of our research. Community support is particularly important for projects that don’t attract funding because they don’t quite fit into a particular scheme,” he explains. “Due to the generous support of the community, we have been able to genetically modify some different strains of the transparent worms, called c.elegans. Excitingly, we have just received the modified worms and can begin our experiments immediately. The first thing on our list is to see if the new motor neurons that we make, talk to the muscles and the brain.”

You can support Professor Yerbury’s ALS research by donating to the UOW USA Foundation.

In addition to his vital lab work, Professor Yerbury has become a proud advocate for those with disabilities in academia. Earlier this year, he teamed up with his wife, Dr Rachel Yerbury, a psychologist at UOW and research affiliate, to co-author a paper for the academic journal, Trends in Neurosciences. The paper explores the aspects of academia that create barriers for people with disabilities. The Yerburys are committed to raising awareness of how tough life is for people with a disability – let alone the additional demands of being an academic.

Professor Yerbury’s advocacy work has led to real change. In 2020, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) revised their policies to consider how people with a disability are assessed for funding. He says seeing the impact of their work has been so rewarding.

“We have been contacted by people with a disability from all around the world. So in that way, it is also very humbling. I do feel, though, that I am an accidental advocate. I think having part of my career able-bodied has made me realize how things should be, and I will fight those battles when they crop up.”

The work of the Yerbury lab continues to be recognized across Australia and the world. Recently, Professor Yerbury was announced as a finalist for the Eureka Prize for scientific research. The annual Eureka Prizes are Australia’s most comprehensive national science awards, celebrating excellence in research and innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science. He says that this honour reflects the hard work and dedication of all members of his lab – past and present – over the last decade.

Wollongong has been in lockdown since late June due to a COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney and like many others, Professor Yerbury has been finding the isolation tough. He feels extremely lucky to have a great family to support him – and the lab team keeps him busy, too.

“I did end up in the COVID ward for a day – don’t worry, it wasn’t COVID – and seeing firsthand the nurses and doctors working on the front line and putting themselves in harm’s way to save others was a powerful experience,” he says. “So to all our supporters out in the community, stay safe, get vaccinated and wear a mask. It’s the best way to repay those working on the front line.”

It is estimated that each year approximately 5,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with ALS. There is no known cure. You can support our vital research by making a gift today