By Jane Keller Gordon, Contributing Writer
Westborough – Like many small, once-isolated ethnic and religious groups, Ashkenazi Jews – those of Eastern and Central European descent – face a higher risk of passing on recessive genetic diseases. According to the Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium, pre-conception carrier screening is available and is recommended for 38 Jewish genetic diseases. Even if an individual has only one Ashkenazi grandparent, screening is advised.
Westborough’s Congregation B’nai Shalom (CBS) invites the community to a presentation, “Jewish Genetics Across the Generations: Get Your Inside Story,” Thursday, March 31, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Wine and cheese will be served.
The event was the brainchild of CBS member Carole Grayson, who is participating in an adult learning program that requires her to organize a community service project.
Grayson said, “I’ve seen the impact of genetic diseases. It’s important for people to be aware of screening options.”
CBS, Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Hadassah Boroughs Chapter, and the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts are organizing the program. The Einstein Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases is a co-sponsor.
The featured speaker is Dr. Jodi Hoffman, medical director of the Genetic Counseling Program at Boston University, and chief of the Division of Genetics at the Boston Medical Center. She will speak about the 38 diseases, as well as the prevalence of the BRACA genes, which increases risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
“Ashkenazi Jews have at least a one in four chance of being a carrier of a serious genetic condition that could affect offspring if passed on from both parents – usually unknowingly,” Hoffman said. “Increased awareness and preconception screening provides the broadest range of reproductive options to allow for the birth of a healthy child.”
When both parents are carriers, their child would have a 25 percent of inheriting the disease, a 50 percent chance of being a carrier, and a 25 percent of being unaffected.
Tay-Sachs, a central nervous system disease, and Cystic Fibrosis, which affects breathing and digestion, are two of the more well-known of the 38 diseases. The infant form of Tay-Sachs is an extremely rare neurodegenerative disease seen in babies who develop normally until about 6 months. Life expectancy is usually 4 years, according to the March of Dimes.
About the BRACA1 or BRCA2 genes, Hoffman commented, “one in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carries a genetic variation that makes them more susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer. People who are aware of their risks can seek prophylactic screening and management to decrease the risk for cancer or detect cancer at an early stage.”
CBS’s Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz often counsels congregants about genetic issues.
“Families who understand the genetic foundation to some illnesses are more likely to respond early to symptoms or seek further testing, and this can sometimes save lives,” Gurevitz said. “Even in interfaith families, knowing more about these issues can be helpful both because a non-Jew can have Jewish ancestry and because, while some of these genetic conditions are more prevalent among Jews, many exist among other ethnic groups, too. We shouldn’t be fearful but we should be informed.”
Hoffman echoed Gurevitz’s comments.
“People of all backgrounds carry genetic differences that could be relevant to their own health or that of their offspring,” she said. “Even those of mixed descent need to know what conditions they are more likely to carry. I will touch on those conditions that are more likely to affect Jews of Sephardic background (Spanish, Middle Eastern descent) as well as some conditions relevant for people of all backgrounds.”