Working for Tips: How Chutzpah and Foreskins Helped Fight Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS), a debilitating autoimmune disease, is on the rise globally. The cause is not fully understood, but scientists believe it results from a combination of influences that include a person’s genetic makeup and immunologic and environmental factors. As drug companies and medical institutions seek effective treatments, they should look to Israel’s Weizmann Institute, which creatively used both chutzpah and foreskins to produce two of today’s most important MS drugs.

In people with autoimmune disorders, the immune system works overtime, attacking both the invading virus and the body. Multiple sclerosis affects the cells in the brain and spinal cord, and the nerve’s protective sheath gradually erodes. Some of those who suffer from this disease – about 2.5 million worldwide – gradually experience extreme fatigue, slurred speech, difficulty controlling their bodily functions, trouble thinking and speaking, and in extreme cases, complete paralysis.

To combat this disorder, Israeli scientist Michel Revel developed Rebif, a powerful drug that is now used by hundreds of thousands of patients worldwide. What is less well known is that Revel, a professor emeritus at the Weizmann Institute, developed Rebif using a formidable Jewish characteristic and a particularly important body part: a new-born male foreskin.

In 1968, Revel joined Weizmann’s Department of Molecular Genetics. Searching for an area of study, he became fascinated by interferon, a protein cells release to alert the body to an impending attack from viruses and other disease-causing microorganisms. Like an immunological Paul Revere, interferon acts as a messenger to alert the immune system, telling it to produce more proteins to fight the invader, and the cells respond by going to war. When the body successfully fends off an attack, it stops producing interferon.

In the late 1970s, when Revel and his fellow researchers began to study interferon, they needed a large amount. “Back then, you couldn’t just order proteins,” says Revel. “You had to make them yourself.” At the time, a liter of human interferon was valued at $1 billion because of the complexity and cost of isolating it. One of the few places in the body that contains interferon in relatively high amounts is the foreskin of a young baby.

Given the number of ritual circumcisions that take place in Israel each year, Revel’s team believed it would be relatively easy to secure the necessary quantity. They were wrong. They approached a number of mohalim, Jewish ritual circumcisers, and asked them to provide foreskins, but the mohalim resisted because traditionally, the foreskin is buried after removal.

Revel got to work, and with creativity and chutzpah, got the blessing of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, head of Chabad Lubavitch, a global Hasidic movement.

Shortly thereafter, six Israeli ritual circumcisers provided Revel with 20 foreskins. Revel and his team ultimately obtained enough raw material to produce interferon beta in quantities sufficient for scientific research. After significant experimentation, they found what they were looking for: the gene for interferon.

By the late 1970s, Revel – and others around the world – became increasingly convinced that interferon could help play a major role in fighting deadly diseases. Some thought it would be a miracle cure for cancer. Others believed it would be used to treat herpes and wart-like growths on the larynx. In order to test these and other theories, in 1979, Revel partnered with a small Swiss pharmaceutical company called Serono to mass-produce interferon. From the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, Revel and Serono tried to prove Revel’s theory that Rebif could help those afflicted by MS.

After 15 years and more than $2 billion, Revel proved his theory. Clinical trials demonstrate that taking the drug reduces MS attacks by more than 50 percent.

In 1998, European health authorities gave permission to distribute the drug. A few years later, the United States, Canada, and 90 other countries did the same. Today, Rebif is one of the most popular MS drugs in the world, and its sales exceed $2.5 billion dollars annually. Approximately 600,000 people have used Rebif and related drugs that use Revel’s patent. Copaxone, also developed at the Weizmann Institute, is another drug widely used to treat those who suffer from multiple sclerosis.

Today, Revel is nearly 80 years old and considered “a living giant in the scientific community,” says Dr. Tamir Ben-Hur, head of the Department of Neurology at the Hadassah Medical Center. “He has changed the course of history through his work on interferon proteins by altering the way doctors treat multiple sclerosis.” Dr. Bernhard Kirschbaum, former executive vice president for research and development of Merck Group, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, agrees. “Rebif has made a very important contribution to improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of MS patients.”

But Revel isn’t finished with his research. Decades after starting his quest to make the world a better place, he is still trying to discover new drug compounds to help fight MS and other devastating neurological diseases.