Multiple Sclerosis Researcher on State of Science in NY

Joel Stern, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Neurology and Science Education, Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, Co-director of the Autoimmune Brain Disorder Research Program at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health, and Assistant investigator in the Department of Autoimmunity and Musculoskeletal Diseases at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.

How did you come to work in New York State?

After completing my Ph.D. at Harvard, I became an Instructor at Harvard Medical School. I later completed a short fellowship in Neurology at Yale Medical School, and then joined the faculty at the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine in 2013.

Since I launched my lab at Hofstra three years ago, it has grown to include a technician, two visiting scientists, four medical students, a neurology resident, and an undergraduate student.

What is your area of research, and what is the potential impact of the research?

My research is focused on autoimmune disorders of the nervous system, including Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and the rare disease, Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO), which attacks the optic and spinal nerves, causing vision loss and partial paralysis. I’m using state-of-the-art genomic sequencing to understand the mechanisms causing these diseases.

This research is important because if we understand the genetics and immunological mechanisms of these diseases, we can then develop more specifically targeted therapies in the future, ideally with fewer side effects.

A discovery I made at Harvard led to the creation of an antibody that targets a specific type of immune cell that converts pathogenic T-cells (that attack healthy tissue in MS) into other types of T-cells, which are protective against the disease. I also designed drug compounds to ameliorate MS by redirecting the attack of the immune system response against more appropriate targets. This discovery progressed to Phase II clinical trials with MS patients.

What are your thoughts on the current research environment in New York?

The New York metro area is a particularly great place to practice research. The presence of so many research and health institutions offers incredible opportunities for collaboration, not to mention the opportunity to connect with patients who want to participate in research. I’m currently collaborating with researchers and physicians at health systems throughout the city, including Rockefeller, NYU, and Columbia.

That said, it is extremely difficult to get funding. As NIH grants are more competitive than ever, researchers spend an exorbitant amount of time writing grants and searching for funding—time that could be spent pursuing discoveries.

People are suffering from so many different diseases. If we don’t fund research and provide avenues to understand these diseases, they will continue to suffer for the foreseeable future.