“Sorry for the delay,” said Dr. Jeffrey Greenstein in a smooth, lightly accented baritone, when he came to the phone after a few minutes. “We just got so engrossed in a problem in the lab, I totally forgot the time.”
Losing track of time in the lab is probably not an unfamiliar experience for Greenstein, who has devoted his professional life to treating and researching multiple sclerosis and remains as passionately interested in it now as he was as a medical student in his native South Africa.
“MS is the prime disabling neurologic condition of young adults,” Greenstein said in explaining why he’s devoted his life to ultimately finding a cure for the disease, which affects as many as 2.5 million people worldwide. “More than any other disease, this is a disease that disables people in their productive years.”
MS also combines two of Greenstein’s great interests: neurology and immunology. “I really chose MS because it’s sort of the challenge par excellence of diseases of the immune system affecting the brain and the spinal cord. So that was a challenge in terms of taking care of patients, and it was a challenge intellectually to see if we could understand this disease.”
His quest for understanding took him from South Africa’s University of Cape Town to Case Western Reserve in Ohio to the National Institutes of Health, where he spent five years as a research fellow.
In 1983, Greenstein came to Center City Philadelphia, where he and his wife still live. He spent 20 years at Temple University — 15 of them chairing the school’s neurology department — but left in 2002 to start an independent center for treating people with MS.
He then developed the Multiple Sclerosis Research Institute (MSRI), a nonprofit foundation engaged in cutting-edge molecular-based science and research into human immunology, where Greenstein spends most of his week. (He also sees patients in private practice.)
It’s the MSRI that Greenstein is promoting now — he recently appeared on an NBC10 newscast — in advance of Vivace II, a classical music concert on Sept. 24 featuring world-renowned pianist Hugh Sung, violinist Danbi Um and cellist Timotheos Petrin. All of the concert’s proceeds will go to the MSRI, where Greenstein works without financial remuneration.
“Jews have a strong tradition of giving and supporting,” Greenstein said. “Even though the MS research is not a Jewish charity … my commitment to taking care of people with MS is very strongly influenced by my being a Jew and my orientation to Judaism.”
Judaism also accounts for his scientific interests, he said.
“There’s a very strong Jewish intellectual tradition of seeking out knowledge and understanding,” he said. “In terms of my research, that’s been a strong driving force.”
At the institute, Greenstein continues work he began at Temple in looking at the cause of MS, which is thought to be an immune-mediated illness whose damage to the nervous system causes a degenerative process.
“My interest particularly is in understanding how the human immune system breaks down in allowing MS to occur,” he said. “We have a sort of ultimate irony in the immune system where we have to recognize our own tissues in order to distinguish them from things that challenge us, such as viruses or bacteria and so on.
“There’s a sort of tenuous balance in all of us between potentially being able to ward off something that’s a challenge and potentially having an overactive immune response to one’s own tissues. In the case of MS, it’s the myelin, the insulation around nerve fibers, which gets damaged.”
Though Greenstein acknowledged that the last three decades have seen progress in the treatment of MS, “there’s nothing that’s perfectly effective,” he said, noting that treatment can also have severe side effects. He also lamented the shortcomings of research to date.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of interest in trying to understand the immune system but virtually all of it has been done on animals. The problem is that mice are 70 million years different from humans on an evolutionary scale; we have at least 300 to 400 genes that mice don’t have, and we also use our genes differently.”
Much of the scientific progress that’s been made, Greenstein said, “hasn’t really led us to a deeper understanding of MS and the mechanisms involved.”
At MSRI, Greenstein is pursuing that deeper understanding. In the process, he’s been part of a successful collaboration with a colleague at Drexel University.
“I became involved in developing a therapy, which actually can be used for not only MS but a number of other conditions. It is now to the point of being put in front of the FDA for review for potentially going to human trials, so it’s been very gratifying that we’ve been able to be involved with that process,” he said. “In fact, I still continue doing some research on the compounds we’ve developed, which have a potentially beneficial effect on the immune system as far as MS is concerned.”
Additionally, the institute received a grant to study a virus that can spread to the brain and cause a devastating and potentially life-threatening infection in people who are on a variety of immune treatments.
“It’s generically important for people on immune-modifying therapies, and we’re hoping that what we’re working on now helps us better understand why this virus goes to the brain,” he said.
The upcoming fundraiser will support that work and more.
“The primary purpose of having [the fundraiser] right now is to support research personnel,” Greenstein said. “We are at this point still very small. I just hired a Ph.D. molecular biologist who’ll work alongside me on various projects.”
For tickets or more information about the fundraiser, call 267-687-7027 or visit MSResearchInstitute.org. The venue is fully handicapped-accessible and has ample parking.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747