La Trobe University donor Brendan McAssey is a venture capitalist and philanthropist who, with his wife, set up The Beluga Foundation to improve the lives of people with disabilities. In 2018, the Foundation gifted $1 million to support clinical trials for a revolutionary new stroke treatment led by La Trobe’s Professor Chris Sobey.
The treatment involves injecting human amniotic cells, normally discarded after birth, into stroke patients. When injected into the blood, the cells travel to the brain, where they find sites of injury, reduce inflammation and promote recovery. In doing so, they can significantly reduce brain injury and aid recovery in stroke patients.
When Brendan heard about the research, he was amazed.
‘It sounded like nanotechnology. These cells find where they need to go, do their job and then get absorbed into the body,’ he says in an ABC radio interview.
By rapidly treating a stroke and saving brain tissue, the treatment reduces lasting damage which can cause disability. For Brendan, this made the research a perfect fit for The Beluga Foundation.
‘One of the things that occurred to me was that stroke is one of the biggest causes of disability. It’s far more significant than even natural birth,’ says Brendan.
‘My father died when he was 56 years old from a stroke, and it just so happens that I turned 56 last year. I was thinking about all of that and when I heard Chris talk about the amazing potential of this amniotic fluid to help people with stroke, I was interested to see if we could help.’
Another reason Brendan decided to fund Professor Sobey’s research was because government and industry wouldn’t.
‘When I was talking to Chris, one of the interesting things was, while he’d applied to government and pharmaceutical companies for a research grant, none of them were particularly interested,’ he says.
‘It’s a wholly natural product, not pharmaceutically generated, and it’s free. So there’s really no profit outcome from this research, and pharmaceutical companies have no benefit in supporting it.’
Giving back through philanthropy was something Brendan had always hoped to do. And through his family life, he’d seen family members live with disabilities every day. So, when profit from a business sale gave him the financial means, he knew exactly which people his Foundation should support.
‘Obviously my father had a stroke, but my sister also has spina bifida. So I’ve lived with disability in the family all my life. And the challenges that people with a disability face are unbelievable,’ he says.
Today, thanks to Brendan’s generous donation, a world-first safety trial for the stroke treatment is now underway. Eligible stroke patients who have been admitted to the trial are already seeing remarkable results.
‘We’ve now had two stroke patients who’ve been through the process. And while the trials are at this stage designed to test volumes and make sure the amniotic cells are safe, the results in terms of the two patients have been really promising. It’s great that they’re seeing some benefits. So far, it’s been some very positive results,’ Brendan says.
On seeing the impact his money has had on someone else’s life, Brendan feels immense gratitude.
‘It’s a lot of money, there’s no question about it, but from our perspective it’s really important. My family came from Ireland and we were very poor growing up. But I’ve been very fortunate to be successful in business life and I wanted to give something back,’ he says.
‘There’s a warm fuzzy feeling you get from actually knowing that two people are potentially going to have a better life as a result of something you’ve been able to do. It really is quite amazing to be able to do something like that.’
Donate to life-changing research today at latrobe.edu.au/giving.