Australian Researcher Receives $50K 2022 Sheila Essey Award

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by Lindsey Shapiro, PhD |

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University of Sydney neurologist Matthew Kiernan, PhD, has been granted the 2022 Sheila Essey Award for his groundbreaking research, aimed at providing earlier diagnoses and better treatments for people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Kiernan, a world-leading expert in the field of ALS research, is the first Australian to win the award, which annually recognizes an individual who is significantly contributing to the effort to find treatments and cures for the neurological disorder.

The accolade provides the opportunity to present a lecture at the American Academy of Neurology‘s 74th Annual Meeting, and a $50,000 prize to further support Kiernan’s ALS research program.

“Congratulations to Professor Kiernan for his dedication and achievement — this recognition is a testament to his important work improving outcomes for patients today, while laying down insights for future discovery,” Mark Scott, vice-chancellor and professor at the University of Sydney, said in a university press release.

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Over the last several years, Kiernan and his team have conducted key clinical research in ALS to better understand disease mechanisms, and how they can be translated to better care for patients.

“I want to be part of a generation that unravels the mysteries of ALS and discovers effective treatments for patients suffering from this fatal disease,” Kiernan said. “We need to improve outcomes for patients living with the disease today, while also providing insights to future research.”

Among his team’s early accomplishments was the discovery that ALS may begin in the brain’s motor cortex — the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement. Nerve cells in this region are hyperexcitable, meaning they fire excessively and are overactive, even before symptoms are evident, Kiernan found.

The findings meant that patients could be diagnosed up to one year sooner than had previously been possible, and enabled a new field of research to identify possible treatments.”

“In recent years we have come to understand ALS primarily as a brain disease,” Kiernan said. “As we continue to uncover the underlying mechanisms of ALS, it is increasingly possible to come up with effective therapies.

Kiernan has worked on a wide range of other ALS research projects, including studies on new disease biomarkers and guidelines for the diagnosis of ALS.

Other projects ongoing in his lab include studies on the genetic basis of ALS, the nature of firing changes in motor neurons, and the effects of the disease on everyday function in ALS patients.

In addition to his research program, Kiernan advocates for access to clinical trials for all ALS patients. In collaboration with other Australian institutions, Kiernan’s team released a patient and clinical trial registry to connect patients with trial opportunities.

The Sheila Essey award was established in 1996 in honor of Sheila Essey, who died in 2004 after a 10 year battle with ALS. The prize, granted each year by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), the ALS Association, and the American Brain Foundation, is also supported by philanthropy from the Essey family.

Kiernan will be honored for his contributions at the AAN Annual Meeting and at the American Brain Foundation’s Commitment to Cures event, both to be held in April.

“This award is shared with ALS patients and their families who have attended our research clinic and driven my research. I have been the beneficiary of support from generous teachers, family and friends throughout this journey,” Kiernan said.

“Thanks to the AAN, the ALS Association and the Essey family for supporting ALS research over many years.” he added.

A full list of previous award winners can be viewed on the ALS association website.