Jewish students engage in genetic screening for hereditary illnesses

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By Danielle Kiefer
For the Mitzpeh
@daniellesusan97

Senior Aaron Solomon has always been curious to learn more about his genetic background, so when he had the opportunity to get screened for Jewish genetic diseases for free, he signed up.

“I have an interesting background, where my mom is an Ashkenazi Jew, and my dad’s Chinese and might have Jewish ancestry,” Solomon, a cell biology and computer science major, said. “If my dad isn’t actually Jewish, I’m not as at risk for certain diseases, but if he is, or has some ancestry, then I’m more at risk than I think I am.”

The event, JScreen Hits Maryland, was held at Hillel April 26. The first 100 students at this university to register could get free genetic testing kits and be screened for Jewish genetic diseases. JScreen is a non-profit public health initiative based at Emory University School of Medicine that aims to help prevent Jewish genetic diseases, according to its website.

People of Jewish heritage are more likely to be carriers of some genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis or spinal muscular atrophy. One out of every four Jewish people is a carrier for a Jewish genetic disease, according to the JScreen website.

Participants receive DNA saliva collection kits at JScreen Hits Maryland April 26. Danielle Kiefer/Mitzpeh.

Participants receive DNA saliva collection kits at JScreen Hits Maryland April 26. Danielle Kiefer/Mitzpeh.

“I’m all in favor of genetic testing,” junior mathematics major Jacob Greenspan said. “I think it’s really important, especially in the Jewish community where Jews, by and large, marry other Jews.”

Junior hearing and speech sciences major Lydia Sonenklar organized the event because she was tested through JScreen last year and heard that JScreen had come to college campuses before. Sonenklar is currently the Chessed, or community service, chair for Kedma, the Orthodox Jewish community at this university.

“If looking out for the future of families isn’t considered Chessed, I’m not sure what is,” Sonenklar said.

Although JScreen initially did not have enough funding to come to this university, the organization contacted Sonenklar in March to say it had enough funding for 75 free tests,  Sonenklar said. Students such as Solomon heard about the event through the Facebook event page that Sonenklar created.

“Once I started advertising, so many people signed up that they opened up 25 more spots,” Sonenklar said. “Within four days, we had 100 students signed up.”

JScreen provided these DNA saliva collection kits. Danielle Kiefer/Mitzpeh.

JScreen provided these DNA saliva collection kits. Danielle Kiefer/Mitzpeh.

JScreen normally provides testing to couples who are planning to have children, to provide them with “an unprecedented understanding of their own genetic makeup and risks relating to their children’s health,” according to its website. This time, though, they partnered with the National Gaucher Foundation to provide tests to students here.

Participants took a saliva test by spitting into a tube, which was then sent to a lab to get tested for diseases including cystic fibrosis, Gaucher disease and Tay-Sachs disease. Results will be delivered within six weeks, and a designated genetic counselor will then discuss options with those who find out that they are a carrier, Sonenklar said.

“Early diagnostics for recessive genes that can be debilitating, or even deadly, is good for everyone,” Sonenklar said, “because having this information allows people to make the appropriate decisions that will allow them to have healthy families down the road.”

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