Edinburgh Uni join rugby star in disease fight

JOOST van der Westhuizen, the South African rugby legend diagnosed with motor neurone disease two years ago, is teaming up with Edinburgh University researchers to help tackle the disorder.

Joost van der Westhuizen in action during the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Picture: Getty

van der Westhuizen, part of the world cup-winning Springboks squad of 1995, is launching the collaboration with scientists from the University.

The former scrum-half was diagnosed in 2011 with the progressive neurodegenerative disease which leads to muscle wasting, paralysis and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing.

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He went on to set up the J9 Foundation, providing support and care to people with motor neurone disease (MND) which is also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The new partnership will see members and supporters of the foundation meet experts from the university’s Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neurone Disease Research to discuss the latest research.

The foundation’s visit to Edinburgh is part of a 10-day tour of the UK aimed at raising awareness and funds to support those affected by MND. Among the events planned is a fundraising quiz at Murrayfield stadium.

Van der Westhuizen said: “This is going to be the most important tour of my life. We are not only raising awareness and funds, for the first time we are bringing international research partnerships home.

“In the beginning you go through all the emotions and you ask, ‘why me?’ It’s quite simple, ‘why not me?’ If I have to go through this to help future generations, why not me?”

When he retired from international rugby in 2003, Van der Westhuizen was the most capped South African player.

He will be honoured by the Scottish Rugby Union before Scotland’s match with South Africa in their second Autumn Test at Murrayfield on Sunday.

Professor Siddharthan Chandran, director of the Euan MacDonald Centre, said: “Solving the enormous challenge of MND or ALS requires partnership and collaboration.

“We are delighted to work with South African colleagues and the J9 foundation to promote better understanding of this devastating disease.”