Wolpe Uncorks Bottle Holding Genetic Genie

Wolpe Uncorks Bottle Holding Genetic Genie

Leah R. Harrison

Leah Harrison is a reporter and copy editor for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

Jewish genetic testing is getting simpler and much more common in a world with more than 3,000 tests for over 1,000 diseases and conditions, Paul Root Wolpe said at Congregation Shearith Israel on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

The simple swab submitted for JScreen’s preconception testing can find 80 genetic diseases, and “it won’t be that long before you’ll just get genetic tests for everything if you want,” Wolpe said. There will be a “genetic test for every known disease that has a genetic component. Very problematic in some ways, but we’re getting close to that being possible.”

Paul Root Wolpe discusses some of the ethical dilemmas of genetic testing.
Paul Root Wolpe discusses some of the ethical dilemmas of genetic testing.

Wolpe was kicking off Shearith Israel’s Synagogue Scholars and Authors Series with a lecture on “Jews and Genes: A Troubled History, a Challenging Future.”

After more than 20 years in the departments of psychiatry, sociology and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, Wolpe is an Emory University professor of bioethics, the Raymond F. Schinazi distinguished research chair in Jewish education, and the director of the Center for Ethics. He was the first bioethicist for NASA and is a bioethicist for JScreen.

He said many Jews lead U.S. bioethical centers, just as Jews earn a hugely disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes and hold a third of the U.S. Supreme Court seats, all of which leads Wolpe to think the United States may have a Jewish slant in how it regards genetics.

“In cutting-edge medical and bioethical issues, Jews have a very powerful voice and presence,” he said.

Wolpe advocates preconception genetic testing for anyone thinking about reproducing. “You know someone who is getting married?” he said. “Ninety-nine dollars — buy them as a gift, the JScreen genetic test.”

He said the awareness from the tests will let couples consider their options and “will help eliminate a lot of diseases from the Jewish community. Why Jewish preconception testing? Well, that’s why. We (Ashkenazi Jews) have a 43 percent higher incidence of genetic disease than the general population — 43 percent to 24, so we have nearly twice as many carriers of genetic disease on average.”

Because so much research has been done on Ashkenazi Jews, however, we just may know more about potential problems and carrier status than in the general population, Wolpe said. The actual difference may not be as dramatic as it appears.

There are ethical issues with pre-implantation selection, in which donated sperm and extracted eggs are mixed to produce embryos that are then tested, he said. Only the ones that are free of the specific disease or are not carriers are implanted, even though they could susceptible to a host of other problems not covered by the screening. “Based on one genetic test of one criterion,” that process could eliminate embryos that are far healthier overall.

“Now we are able to actually intervene at many different levels, and pretty soon we’ll be able to actually genetically engineer,” he said, citing “genius sperm” as an example. And what happens when we start being able to test for adult-onset diseases? What choices will be made, and what ethical dilemmas will arise? What about conceiving one child to be a bone marrow donor for another? What if we found a gene for obesity or alcoholism?

Far more genetic counselors are needed to help people understand the options and implications of genetic findings, Wolpe said. False paternity results are another ethical challenge from increased genetic testing.

Wolpe said he dislikes the term “Jewish genetic diseases” but acknowledges that it is probably appropriate to describe the 19 diseases Ashkenazi Jews have at higher rates than other Jews.

Wolpe said “genetic Jewishness” is real: Jews are “defined by a genetic commonality.”

As a sociologist, he offered his definition of Jews as “a religiously and culturally defined collective with a core membership that has a common ancestry.” He said Jews have a strong Founder’s Effect, which is when “a group descends from a small core of ancestors.”

Wolpe said a “genetic bottleneck” around 1400 resulted in all who are genetically Ashkenazi descending from only 20,000 Jews.

“All of us,” he emphasized.

He said the Cohen Haplotype (gene) can be traced through the males of all generations, and a variety of genetic markers define Jewish males but are “remarkably absent in non-Jews.”

The claims of Jewish descent from disparate tribes around the world may have validity, he said. “It’s not just a story.”

Series Continues

The Congregation Shearith Israel Synagogue Scholars and Authors Series continues Wednesday, Nov. 11, with medical doctor and Emory anthropologist Melvin Konner speaking on “Women After All? Adventures in Natural Superiority.” Georgia State law professor Don Samuel speaks Dec. 9 on “The Fourth Amendment in an Age of Terrorism: Our Right of Privacy vs. Government Surveillance.” On Jan. 9 journalist Joshua Levs will speak about his recent book, “All In: How Our Work First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses and How We Can Fix It Together.” The series wraps up Feb. 10 with Emory psychology professor Marshall Duke delivering a talk titled “Let Me Tell You a Story: The Remarkable Power of Family Narratives.” All presentations begin at 7:30 p.m. and are free and open to the community. For more information, email Nancy Gorod at ngorod@shearithisrael.com.

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