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Seinfeld's 'George' Takes on Scleroderma

By Rachel Moore

The often unemployed, usually complaining and always self-centered George Costanza of television's Seinfeld doesn't exactly conjure up pictures of volunteerism, dedication or brotherly love. But it might be time to give George a little respect. The man behind the character — actor Jason Alexander — has all of these qualities, and he is using his celebrity status to bring attention to the devastating impact of scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that affects his half-sister Karen Greenspan and killed her mother, Fay.

Scleroderma (literally meaning "hard skin") is often referred to as a single disease, but actually it is a symptom of a group of diseases that involve the abnormal growth of connective tissue, which supports the skin and the internal organs. In some forms of scleroderma, hard, tight skin is the extent of the disease, but in other forms, the disorder can severely affect blood vessels and internal organs such as the heart, lungs and kidneys.

As spokesman for the Scleroderma Foundation, Alexander gave the keynote address at a luncheon the foundation held recently on Capitol Hill to increase legislators' awareness of the disease and to honor the members and staff of the U.S. House and Senate labor, health and human services, and education appropriations subcommittees.

Scleroderma spokespersons Jason Alexander (l) and Lauren Beeson pose with NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz.

Dr. Stephen Katz, director of NIAMS, was a featured speaker at the luncheon, introducing Alexander and speaking about the 10 new research grants NIAMS funded this year — two with the Office of Research on Women's Health — which total more than $2 million per year.

After Alexander cracked a few jokes about his new role as spokesman (it turns out he can be irreverent even when he's not wearing George's shoes), he talked about his half-sister's strength and courage throughout her ordeal with scleroderma. He encouraged the soft-spoken Greenspan to address the audience and tell her own story.

Greenspan said her mother was diagnosed with scleroderma in 1952, and 4 years later, she died from it. Yet despite her mother's diagnosis, Greenspan suffered from scleroderma for 13 years before she was properly diagnosed. "My doctor told me that there was nothing wrong with me that a new boyfriend and a yoga class wouldn't cure," she said. She went undiagnosed for so long, she thinks, partly because she did not have the skin manifestations considered to be the hallmark of the disease and partly because scleroderma was so poorly understood.

Katz told the luncheon attendees he hoped their efforts and the new research grants would result in better treatments for scleroderma and other autoimmune conditions. "And maybe now," he joked when introducing Alexander, "Jason Alexander will get some respect."

"Don't bet on it," said Alexander.

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