2022 Eureka Award winners include Justin Yerbury and Veena Sahajwalla

A motor neurone disease researcher who has made significant progress in understanding the disease, even though he battles it himself, has been named the winner of the Eureka Prize for Scientific Research.

Professor Justin Yerbury was diagnosed with MND in 2016. It left him completely paralyzed. He uses a ventilator to breathe and his scientific papers – at least 35 over the past three years – are written using an eye-tracking system.

Professor Justin Yerbury at the University of Wollongong.

Professor Justin Yerbury at the University of Wollongong.

“There are over 2,000 people living with MND in Australia today. What unites us all is the despair that an incurable disease brings. I want to change that,” Yerbury said.

“I want a better life for people with MND and I want to make MND a treatable disease. I’m not going to stop until I can say that MND isn’t a hopeless case.

A faulty gene means the disease runs in Yerbury’s family. During a six-week period in 2002, he lost his mother, grandmother and aunt to MND. His laboratory at the University of Wollongong has made significant progress in understanding the disease and is currently testing several potential treatments.

“He’s basically the mastermind behind the operation. It just doesn’t stop. The ideas keep coming in, and we’re helping him make them happen,” said Natalie Farrawell, senior research assistant at Yerbury.

“It’s a constant struggle. Working alongside him, you can see how hard it is for him, but he is so determined to get his ideas out, to try to make a difference on the pitch.

Motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord control our muscles. Their instructions allow us to walk, talk, swallow and even breathe. MNDs are characterized by their slow decomposition. As they die, they take these abilities one by one.

About nine out of 10 cases are not hereditary – the disease simply appears. Most people with the most common form of MND will die within five years of diagnosis.

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