It was a terrible time for the Jolly family, and the emotion is still apparent when daughter, Roslyn Jolly, talks about it.
“To watch it happen to someone you love, is devastating,” she says. “It’s like the tape is going backwards. What the person learned as a child about how to function in the world, begins to go. They forget basics, even things like how to use cutlery.”
It was 2003 and Roslyn’s mother, Pam Jolly, was struggling against the worsening Alzheimer’s disease that would take her life a year later. Pam’s other daughter, Suzanne Lewis, remembers the sense of helplessness, “None of the doctors Mum saw could do anything for her,” Suzanne says. “Nothing made any difference.”
Pam’s husband, Mark Jolly AM, widely respected Emeritus Professor of Oral Medicine and Surgery at the University of Sydney, had recently taken a greater role in caring for Pam. He dedicated himself to keeping her as engaged with life as she could be, and cared for her at home for as long as possible
Mark was convinced that a cure had to be found for this cruel disease. When Mark himself passed in 2017, Suzanne and Roslyn, began looking at how his $50,000 bequest could best be used.
We could see how much is happening now around Alzheimer’s disease. It feels like finally there is some hope.
The family had a strong connection with the University of Sydney – four generations of family members were graduates, including both Mark and Pam - so the search began there.
“We were taken on a tour of the University’s Brain and Mind Centre,” Suzanne says. “We could see how much is happening now around Alzheimer’s disease. So much more than when we were trying to help Mum. It feels like finally there is some hope. ”
The Brain and Mind Centre is a global leader in researching and treating disorders of the brain and mind. The work at the Centre seeks answers to some of the most pressing health concerns, including childhood development and behavioural disorders, youth mental health, addiction, ageing and neurodegeneration.
Mark Jolly had specified he wanted to support the search for a cure, so Suzanne and Roslyn were immediately attracted to the ground-breaking work of Professor Michael Valenzuela at the Centre’s Regenerative Neuroscience Group.
It had been widely reported in 2015, that Professor Valenzuela’s team had actually cured a dog of dementia by using its own stem cells. This was a world-first advance with incredible implications for human treatments.
Professor Valenzuela himself, was energised by the result, “Canine dementia is similar and predictive of human dementia, so this gives me quiet confidence that we are on the right track. But there is so much work to do.”
When Suzanne and Roslyn visited his laboratory, they found themselves caught up in the promise that the work offered.
“They showed us brain scans and explained how they were pursuing their ideas,” Suzanne says. “We were genuinely excited by what we saw.”
So excited in fact, they decided to increase their father’s gift to $85,000. The gift is now called the Mark and Pam Jolly Research Fund.
Roslyn adds, “The icing on the cake was that mum really loved dogs. It seemed like a good fit all round.”
Professor Valenzuela’s stem cell work is continuing, but he’s also looking at Alzheimer's prevention, particularly through cognitive brain training. He’s found this training strengthens the connection between the brain's memory centre (the hippocampus), and the frontal lobe where problem solving happens. These are the two places where Alzheimer's strikes first.
“It’s a humbling experience to have families support our work,” Professor Valenzuela says. “I feel the responsibility to put these funds to the best use possible.
“The Jolly family gift, will help to attract a stem cell biologist, a key addition to my team who will turbo-charge our understanding of how these cells work.”
It is easy to see how thrilled Suzanne and Roslyn are to be helping Professor Valenzuela’s team take his research further into new territory.
“What happened to Mum was devastating for our family, as it is for every family experiencing Alzheimer’s disease,” Roslyn says. “We’d love to think that one day, fewer families would have to go through that.”