JScreen helps with genetic testing

We’re moving toward the end of some very special days: the first-ever Jewish Genetic Screening Awareness Week. It’s the work of JScreen, headquartered at Atlanta’s Emory University, and the Georgia State Legislature has passed a proclamation endorsing its efforts. These are the themes of this groundbreaking effort to share information and resources: Tay-Sachs and More, College Students, BRCA Awareness, the Sephardi Community, and Interfaith Couples.
All of this has come about because JScreen is a national nonprofit public health initiative dedicated to preventing all Jewish genetic diseases. Enhanced awareness and the importance of screening are being emphasized during this first-ever intense week of potential tragedy prevention.
Karen Arnovitz Grinzaid, JScreen’s executive director, says, “We are sharing real-life stories highlighting both the need for, and the ease of, a simple saliva screening test.” She doesn’t promise miracles, only hope that “increased awareness will lead more families to get screened.” Hillel is one of several organizations partnering in this effort to help many more people make this important decision.
Georgia State Representative Mike Wilensky introduced a resolution to his state’s General Assembly with these words: “We are thrilled to highlight JScreen’s honorable efforts to help people take charge of their health and that of their children. Knowledge truly is power.” It was adopted, designating this as Jewish Genetic Screening Awareness week, formally acknowledging that “Everyone is a carrier for a number of genetic diseases, (but) there are certain genetic diseases that are more common in certain ethnicities. Jewish people are among the ethnic groups at high risk for certain diseases, some of which cause early death or severely debilitating symptoms. And non-Jewish people can also be carriers of these and other genetic diseases.”
Wilensky’s resolution continued: “Carriers are healthy individuals who unknowingly have a mutation in a disease gene. They do not have symptoms; the only ways they can know if they are carriers is to have an affected child — or to get tested.” He emphasized that couples have a 25 percent risk with each pregnancy of having a child affected by a genetic disease if both are carriers. He stressed that genetic screening is now easily accessible nationwide, by means of a simple at-home saliva test.
He was also quick to mention that while Tay-Sachs is the most well-known Jewish genetic disease, JScreen tests for many others that are lesser known but just as potentially devastating. “Having information through reproductive carrier screening prior to pregnancy is important for family planning,” Wilensky said. But since the farthest thing from many college students’ minds is having a baby, JScreen also offers discounted testing at colleges and universities across the country.
It’s now widely known that Ashkenazi Jews are at 10 times greater risk of having a BRCA gene mutation than any other ethnic group, dangerously raising their chances of having breast, ovarian, prostate and/or pancreatic cancer in their lifetimes. Although it’s most commonly thought that only Ashkenazi Jews of European ancestry need carrier testing for family planning, it’s now become more generally known that Jews of all backgrounds are at risk and should be screened. These additional groups include those of Sephardi and Mizrahi ancestry, such as Persians, Syrians and Bukharians.
And this is cautionary warning: While there are several diseases most commonly found in people with Jewish backgrounds, these can also occur in the general population, making screening important for interfaith couples as well as Jewish ones. JScreen also offers “pan-ethnic” testing to cover diseases that cross those lines of genetic inheritance.
JScreen describes itself as a nonprofit, community-based public health initiative dedicated to preventing Jewish genetic diseases. It is a collaboration between clinical geneticists, socially-minded businesses, and non-profits; its aim is to provide everyday people with real access to cutting-edge genetic testing technology, education and counseling services. “The combination of education, access to premier gene screening technologies, and personalized confidential support are the keys to preventing these devastating diseases,” it says. You can find more information at support@jscreen.org.

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