Edinburgh Friends article, Euan MacDonald, Winter 07/08 edition

Euan McDonald Euan MacDonald’s life was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at just 29 years old, but he resolved that something positive should come out of his illness.

Supporters of The University of Edinburgh donate for a number of reasons. They may be alumni who wish to support future students, academics keen to advance research in their own area of expertise, or public figures who understand the driving force universities play in the economy. For law graduate Euan MacDonald, making a donation was another way of fighting the disease he has lived with since then.

Back in 2003, Euan noticed a loss of power in his left thumb when buying a new bike, and later developed a twitch in the muscles of his left arm. A series of tests followed and shortly after his 29th birthday Euan was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Despite being given a devastating prognosis of surviving anything between six months and a few years, Euan remained positive.

Within a year of diagnosis he married his girlfriend Liz, and their first son Finlay was born in 2004, followed by Alec a year later. Euan gave up his job as an investment banker with Dresdner Kleinwort in London and returned to his hometown of Edinburgh with his family.

Taking action

Although motor neurone disease is a degenerative illness, its progression has been comparatively slow for Euan and he counts himself lucky to be able to lead a relatively full life. In fact, Euan and his father Donald, a leading Scottish businessman and alumnus, threw all their energies into a variety of fundraising events in aid of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, including dinners, sponsored bike rides and marathons.

Then Euan had an idea. “In May 2006 we had a meeting with Professor Richard Ribchester, convenor of the Edinburgh Motor Neurone Disease Research Group at The University of Edinburgh,” Euan recalls. “Prof Ribchester invited us to a symposium which gathered together a group of 20 scientists working across the University on various aspects of motor neurone disease.”

“A variety of thoughts all came together,” continues Donald, who is Co-founder and Vice-chairman of City Inn hotels and joint Chairman of Caledonian Brewery. “We wanted to do something to intensify existing research into MND, we both studied at Edinburgh and we had attended the symposium. We decided that we wanted to do something to help in our own back yard.”

“Although I had a good few years at The University of Edinburgh, we didn’t decide to support them for the sake of it,” Euan adds. “We supported the University because they already had the centre of expertise available.  From the point of view of an alumnus, there had to be good projects there to support, and that was key to our decision.”

Following close discussion with Prof Ribchester and his colleagues, plans for the Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neurone Disease Research began to take shape. “We encouraged the University to tell us what they needed and in the end we produced a kind of shopping list,” Donald explains. “We were happy to stimulate that and help to develop the centre as far and as fast as we can.”

The Euan MacDonald centre

Thanks to the MacDonald family’s generous donation of £1m, the new Centre was formally opened in June 2007. Based next to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and run alongside the University’s MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, the Centre builds on the University’s already strong research base into motor neurone biology and forms part of a worldwide effort to find a cure for the disease.

“At the moment there is a large group of about 15–20 researchers with a variety of expertise,” says Euan. “A group of this size is unique to Scotland and unusual across Europe. We wanted to get everyone together, working collaboratively on overcoming the challenges of the disease. It was also important to give the group a clinical focus and encourage them to think about potential treatments.”

“Of course the most basic aim is to find a cure,” adds Donald. “That should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, but it’s important to look along the spectrum too, to see if we can slow the progress of the disease and help sufferers in terms of palliative care. We were very impressed with the University’s focus at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM), where researchers pull together to look at neurological puzzles such as MS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and MND. It’s a coming together of various strands.”

Gaining momentum

The Centre’s translational research is directed towards three main goals: improving basic knowledge and understanding of motor neurone development, differentiation, function, plasticity and degeneration; developing and implementing neuroprotective and regenerative treatments; and creating new technologies to improve quality of life for patients suffering from MND.

As well as being the only Scottish university with a major and diverse group of researchers in motor neurone cell biology or MND, the University is at the forefront of research in related areas of biomedical science, thanks to the establishment of the CRM, the MS Centre and the Centre for Neuroscience Research. All research centres operate through an interdisciplinary model and collaborative links exist with neurologists across the UK, mainland Europe and America.

“From the project’s early beginnings at the symposium, we went on to work closely with John Savill, the head of the Medical School, Prof Ribchester and Chloe Kippen in Development & Alumni, all of which have been excellent,” says Donald. “It’s all grown from there and we hope to see people getting involved to give the Centre impetus and momentum, to really make a success of it.”

“The past year has been an exciting time for us,” adds Euan. “It will be great to see how the Centre develops over the next 12 months.”

This article originally featured in the Winter 2007/08 edition of Edinburgh Friends.