By Jamie Weissman
Shira Neuman said she learned about the importance of genetic screening when she was in high school. The Maryland Hillel JLIC Orthodox educator used the practice to confirm if she and her future husband were carriers for genetic diseases they could potentially pass on to their children.
Now, the same opportunity will be offered to university students this week during Hillel’s Jewish Genetic Diseases Awareness and Screening Week.
“It’s very important for students at this time in life to be aware of Jewish genetics,” Neuman said. “Even if starting a family isn’t on their minds, this is a very easy thing to do.”
Neuman worked with sophomore Elana Handelman and junior neurobiology and physiology major Gabe Zuckerberg to organize the event and help educate and screen students for diseases that are common in the Jewish population.
“I think it is important to understand there are specific genetic diseases that are unique to Jewish families, and I think that knowledge is power when it comes to being able to plan for the future,” said Handelman, a government and politics major.
Senior government and politics major Andrew Podob said he thinks getting tested for diseases Jewish people are predominantly at risk for was a “worthwhile family planning idea.”
The weeklong event began Dec.1 with an information session by University of Maryland genetics professor, David Straney, who presented basic information about genetics and discussed services available to people who test positive for various diseases.
On Dec. 4, the nonprofit JScreen will be at Hillel to screen students for 87 genetic diseases.
The $99, non-invasive saliva test will screen for already existing genetic diseases. Within two or three weeks of the test, those screened will have an over-the-phone session with a genetic counselor, who will explain the results.
“We just want to give them peace of mind,” said Hillary Kener, JScreen’s outreach coordinator. “We would just want to explain what the diseases are and what they entail.”
Often, people are carriers for certain diseases. But if they only have one copy of a mutant form of a gene, they may not have the disease.
The gene becomes a problem when a person with one copy of a particular gene has a child with someone who has the same gene mutation, Straney said.
Some of the most common diseases in the Jewish population are Tay-Sachs, which affects the nervous system, and Canavan disease, one that affects the breakdown and use of aspartic acid.
“If you know the information, then you know what your chances are,” Straney said. “It’s not going to change who you fall in love with, but at least it gives you options.”