Movement disorders

Tributes paid to ‘inspirational leader’ Prof Byron Kakulas

Tributes have been paid to the distinguished neurologist Emeritus Professor Byron Kakulas AO, a global research leader in muscle wasting disease and founder of the Perron Institute, who has died at the age of 90.

Professor Kakulas was “an inspirational leader … who changed the landscape of neurology and neuroscience in Western Australia and influenced the direction of international research,” said Perron Institute Board Chairman Rob McKenzie.

Professor Kakulas graduated in medicine from the University of Adelaide in 1956 and completed his residency training at Royal Perth Hospital, going on to specialise in clinical neurology.

He undertook further study to achieve a specialist qualification in pathology and in his doctoral thesis on paralytic disease in the Rottnest Island quokka Professor Kakula showed that the disorder was due to breakdown of muscle resulting from vitamin E deficiency.  This was a major breakthrough since it demonstrated the potential for all muscle diseases including muscular dystrophy to be curable.

“This pioneering work was of momentous importance. It laid the foundation for subsequent research by Professors Steve Wilton AO and Sue Fletcher AO in Western Australia that resulted in the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (eteplirsen),” the Perron Institute said in a tribute to Prof Kakulas published this week.

He was appointed Professor of Neuropathology at The University of Western Australia in 1971, Dean of Medicine in 1978 and an Emeritus Professor in 2006.

In 1967, he founded the Muscular Dystrophy Association of WA, and in 1982, the Australian Neuromuscular Research Institute which later became the Perron Institute.

According to the Perron Institute, Professor Kakulas was the first to identify Inclusion Body Myositis as an entity. In the early 1990s he introduced molecular genetics and DNA technology in the investigation of muscle diseases.

“Other highlights have been the development of a model for polymyositis and the pathology of slow virus infections. The neuropathology of spinal cord injuries has been a major lifelong interest for which his pioneer work has gained much international acclaim setting the scientific basis for better treatments and an eventual cure,” it said.

“Throughout his distinguished career, Emeritus Professor Kakulas pursued his vision with a level of dedication and passion that has been truly impressive,” said Mr McKenzie.

“His legacy of advancements in the neurosciences field endures and the example he has set for young researchers in the importance of keeping an open, inquiring mind and being prepared to persist will continue to encourage and inspire.

“He was still working every day at the Perron Institute until just before Christmas.

“We extend our sincere condolences to his wife Valerie and family at this difficult time,” the Chairman said.

In June 2022 a new award, the Byron Kakulas Medal was launched to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of an individual (or small team) in Western Australia, who has had a transformational impact on the health and wellbeing of Western Australians.

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