QBI lab targets motor neuron disease

19 Mar 2008

UQ's newest brain disorder research lab was opened this afternoon in honour of the self-made millionaire Peter Goodenough who lost his life to motor neuron disease (MND) in 2004.

Mr Goodenough bequeathed more than $6m to the University's Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) to help find a cure for MND.

MND is a group of disorders which causes muscle wasting and the loss of nerve cells that control speech, swallowing and respiration.

Minister for Tourism, Regional Development and Industry Desley Boyle officially opened the Peter Goodenough and Wantoks Research Laboratory. (Wantoks means close friends or relatives in pidgin English — a reference to Mr Goodenough's three pet dogs and ‘best mates' whom he wanted recognised.)

Ms Boyle said more philanthropy was one way to boost Queensland's woeful investment in research and development in comparison with other states.

Mr Goodenough's bequest is the single, largest donation to UQ from an individual and his former carer Jo Simpson was among about 50 people at the lab opening.

The laboratory was completed in November 2007 and is now home to the Molecular Genetics of Human Disease team led by QBI's Dr Robyn Wallace.

QBI Director Professor Perry Bartlett said Mr Goodenough's unprecedented support would allow QBI and Australia to lead the world in discovering new therapeutic treatments for MND.

“Dr Wallace (inaugural Ross McLean Fellow) is currently focusing on discovering new biomarkers and disease-candidate genes in blood samples taken from MND patients, both here and in China, as well as identifying genes associated with muscle weakness in the mouse,” Professor Bartlett said.

Dr Elizabeth Coulson (QBI's Nerve Cell Survival Lab Head) has discovered new molecules that promote nerve survival and prevent motor neuron loss. It is only through fundamental research like this that a cure for MND will be found.

“Because discoveries can, and often do, come from unexpected areas of research, we must continue to pursue a multifaceted and strategic approach as there are so few clues as to what causes MND and currently no therapies to reverse the effects of the disease or to prevent its progression.”

In honouring Mr Goodenough's legacy, Professor Bartlett also said scientist and former Australian of the Year Sir Gustav Nossal would deliver the inaugural Peter Goodenough Lecture on July 15.

Three fully-funded scholarships for Papua New Guinean students studying engineering, law and neuroscience were also announced in Mr Goodenough's honour.

Dr Wallace said she believed it would be at least a decade before there was a MND treatment.

Peter Goodenough background:

Mr Goodenough was born in Cornwall, England, and died aged 69 on November 14, 2004 in the Cairns Base Hospital.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Mr Goodenough developed a multi-million dollar civil engineering contracting company with extensive interests in Papua New Guinea.

At its peak, Mr Goodenough's Bougainville operation employed more than 100 people for road building, trucking and pre-fabricated housing.

He was forced to leave Bougainville in the late 1980s when fighting broke out.  During one dramatic episode Mr Goodenough's three dogs (wantoks) helped him to escape a violent confrontation with rebels.

Mr Goodenough battled MND for about three years before the disease left him wheelchair-bound and unable to speak for the final year of his life.

Neil Matheson, Mr Goodenough's Joint Trustee and former accountant in Cairns, said that after Mr Goodenough lost his voice, they would communicate via a whiteboard.

“He would write down what he wanted to say and I would speak back to him ... The awful thing about it is that the mental capacity doesn't diminish in any way,” Mr Matheson said.

Mr Matheson said Mr Goodenough gave to UQ after spending six months trying to find the best scientists to work on a cure for MND to ensure that no “other bastard” suffered from the disease.

“He wanted to make sure his money was well spent which is why he entrusted it to the University and the QBI.

“He didn't like the idea of having a terminal illness, nobody does of course, but he became very angry and remained busy to the end putting his affairs in order.”

He said Mr Goodenough was a self-made millionaire who was a recluse with strong morals who showed no interest in personal wealth such as expensive clothes or cars.

He is survived by five children, most of whom still reside in Cornwall.


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Notes to the Editor
The Queensland Brain Institute was formed in 2003 as part of the Queensland Government’s Smart State Initiative, building on a long history of neuroscience at The University of Queensland. QBI is dedicated to understanding the molecular basis of brain function and applying this knowledge to the development of new therapeutics to treat brain and mental health disorders.