Can ethnocultural genetics predict an individual’s potential susceptibility to certain diseases? In some instances it can.
Because of their relative genetic homogeneity, Ashkenazi Jews are also more susceptible to roughly 20 to 30 genetic diseases than the general population, and many are carriers for at least one illness inherited diseases due to inherited genetic mutations and traits. According to the Philedelphia-based Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases there are 19 preventable genetic diseases with a 1 in 4 carrier rate among Jews. The Victor Center, which also has offices in Boston, Miami and Pittsburgh, and community partnerships in Atlanta, Birmingham and Dallas, provides full service genetic counseling and screening to all interested individuals and couples. Genetic counseling and screening for Jewish genetic diseases is offered both in the office and through the community screenings.
The upside corollary is of course that Ashkenazi as a group also doubtless will be more resistant to other disease categories than the demographic median “We have our genetic and medical history written into our cells,” Bennett Greenspan, president Gene by Gene, Ltd, a Houston, Texas-based genetic testing service, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Nicole Brochu. “Science and technology are only now beginning to write the book.”
Ms. Brochu notes that while the exact number of genetic diseases occurring more commonly in the Ashkenazi Jewish population is not precisely known, estimates vary from 19 to 33, and include: Bloom syndrome; Canavan Disease; cystic fibrosis; Dihydrolipoamide; Dehydrogenase Deficiency (DLD Deficiency); Familial Dysautonomia; Familial Hyperinsulinism; Fanconi Anemia Type C; Gaucher’s disease; Glycogen Storage Disease, Type 1a; Joubert Syndrome; Maple syrup urine disease; Mucolipidosis IV (ML4); Nemaline Myopathy; Niemann-Pick Disease Type A; Spinal Muscular Atrophy; Tay-Sachs Disease; Usher Syndrome Type 1F; Usher Syndrome Type 3; and Walker-Warburg syndrome, Parkinson’s Disease, Torsion Dystonia and breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Ms. Brochu reports that recent studies have researched Ashkenazis to learn more about causes and potential treatments for breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, Crohn’s disease, autism and a host of other ailments. For example, in Boca Raton, the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center is in the midst of a project, funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, to study members of South Florida’s large Ashkenazi Jewish community in hope of better understanding what causes Parkinson’s, and how to prevent it, and at the University of South Florida, a study involving Ashkenazi women from the Miami area explored cultural and religious influences on colorectal cancer.
For more information, read our related info page on Crohn’s Disease
Bennett Greenspan, together with Max Blankfeld, are principals of Houston-based Gene By Gene, Ltd., a genomics and genetics testing company founded in 2000 as Family Tree DNA, the first in the world to develop DNA testing for ancestry and genealogical purposes as a commercial application. Prior to the company’s initiative, these tests were only available for academic and research purposes. Because of this innovation, the National Geographic Society and its partner, IBM, selected Family Tree DNA to provide testing and manage all public participation in the Genographic Project. An entrepreneur and life-long genealogy enthusiast, Mr. Greenspan founded Family Tree DNA in 1999, as the original unit of what went to become Gene by Gene.
Other divisions of Gene by Gene are DNATraits.com, a new medical genetic testing division of Gene by Gene that operates a state of the art CLIA registered laboratory specializing in DNA testing to identify genetic disorders and susceptibility to inherited diseases and other characteristics, and DNADTC.com, a research only division specialized in exomes and whole genome tests. DNA Traits, offers an extensive list of genetic tests. DNA Traits was founded on the simple idea that if science can tell us whether we carry inheritable disorders, we have the right to know, for our own health and for the future of our families. DNA Traits specializes in DNA testing to identify genetic disorders and susceptibility to inherited diseases and characteristics. Its services are private, affordable, and meet or exceed HIPPA requirements and the policy statement set forth by the American College of Medical Genetics (ACMG).
In a monograph, Mr. Greenspan, who lives in Houston, notes that he spent years investigating the ancestors of his maternal grandfather, a personal obsession that eventually led to the founding of FamilyTreeDNA and the beginning of a new kind of genealogy, the burgeoning field now known as genetic genealogy.
Family Tree DNA offers analysis of autosomal DNA, YDNA, and mtDNA to individuals for genealogical purposes, based on DNA samples collected using a cheek swab method with a kit supplied by Family Tree DNA to its customers. Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder Test helps clients find family across all their lines, up to 6 generations back, by checking hundreds of thousands of points in their autosomal DNA, and comparing the results with others in the Family Finder database. In partnership with the National Geographic Genographic Project, the company has tested over 500,000 individuals for this project alone.
In September 2012, the parent company of Family Tree DNA, Genealogy by Genetics, Ltd., was renamed Gene by Gene, Ltd. and restructured to comprise four divisions: Family Tree DNA for genealogical DNA tests, DNA Traits for CLIA regulated health diagnostic tests, DNA DTC for research use only tests including exomes and whole genome sequencing, and DNA Findings for AABB and NYSDH certified relationship tests. Gene by Gene owns and runs its own lab, the cutting edge Genomics Research Center at its Houston, Texas, headquarters which currently performs R&D and processes over 200 types of DNA tests for its customers.
Gene by Gene claims to be the largest processor of Full Mitochondria Sequences in the world and the largest submitter of those sequences to the NCBI’s Genbank, as well as top discoverer of Y-chromosome Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). Gene By Gene’s state-of-the-art Genomics Research Center is a CLIA registered lab. The extensively automated lab and efficient processes, allow the company to provide reliable tests at reasonable costs. During the company’s 12 years of operations it has processed more than 5 million discrete DNA tests from more than 700,000 individuals and organizations globally. The facility is now one of only 36 laboratories in the United States, including the Yale University School of Medicine and the Baylor College of Medicine, to achieve this prestigious affiliation.
Gene By Gene’s state-of-the-art Genomics Research Center is a CLIA registered lab. The extensively automated lab and efficient processes, allow the company to provide reliable tests at reasonable costs. During the company’s 12 years of operations it has processed more than 5 million discrete DNA tests from more than 700,000 individuals and organizations globally. The facility is now one of only 36 laboratories in the United States, including the Yale University School of Medicine and the Baylor College of Medicine, to achieve this prestigious affiliation.
With over 600,000 records, it has the largest database of its kind in the world, including records for Jews of Ashkenazi and Sephardic origins as well as Levite and Cohanim.
Ashkenazi Jews: A Background
Ashkenazi Jews are an ethnoreligious group tracing its origins to Israelite tribes of Canaan in the Middle East, members of which are believed to have begun settling along Germany’s Rhine river region and Western France during the early Middle Ages. The term “Ashkenazim” is today applied to descendants of that demographic, including those who established communities in Eastern and Central Europe from the 11th through the 19th Centuries, notably in what are now Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, and Romania, and who are thought to account for about 80 percent of the world’s Jews today – down from a peak of about 92 percent in the early 1930s.
The name Ashkenazi derives from the biblical figure Ashkenaz, first son of Gomer, and a Japhetic patriarch in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10), whose kingdom of Ashkenaz was first associated with the Scythian region. Jews living in Eastern Europe identified with Ashkenaz’s kingdom and came to call themselves the Ashkenazi, with Jews from Western and Central Europe later also coming to be called Ashkenazi because the main centers of Jewish learning were located in Germany where they developed Yiddish, a High German language written using the Hebrew alphabet, and heavily influenced by classical Hebrew and Aramaic which during the Middle Ages became the lingua franca among Ashkenazi Jews, and the term “Ashkenaz” came to be identified primarily with German customs and descendants of German Jews.
According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, during the 10th and 11th Centuries Ashkenazim formed a merchant class in Germany and France, and were treated well because of their trading connections with the Mediterranean and the East. Consequently Jewish communities appeared in many urban centers, where, until Christian guilds were formed, Jews were the craftsmen and artisans, while in France many Jews owned vineyards and made wine. The Medieval Askenazi carried arms and knew how to use them in self-defense, with the Jews of each town constituting an independent, self-governing entity, establishing its own regulations adjudicated by an elected board and judicial courts, who enforced their rulings with the threat of excommunication, with the Ashkenazim generally shying away from outside influences and concentrating on internal Jewish sources, ideas and customs.