Genetics research is a controversial field; its rapid advances can be confusing and even frightening. Some say it is all about designer babies and doctors “playing G-d.” We have all heard about the cloning of “Dolly” the sheep and aspirations to clone humans, and almost every day, it seems, the headlines report the discovery of new genes linked to common human afflictions like obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancers. New genetic technology introduces us to situations that are foreign to us, risk our family’s reputation, and most importantly, challenge our Jewish traditions. Yet genetics research pertains to each and every one of us and to every aspect of our lives – from genetically-engineered foods to common clinical tests.
The Jewish community is more familiar than most with the science of genetics. The international effort to offer mass population screening for the Tay-Sachs gene was launched right here in Baltimore in the 1970s, and our parents, their relatives, and friends were all exposed to the massive educational events promoting the screening. In our Orthodox community, in particular, Dor Yeshorim testing has become a “rite of passage,” compelling young adults – as well as their parents, relatives, and friends – to face issues of premarital genetic screening. Finally, human geneticists have for decades disproportionately targeted the Ashkenazi Jewish community for genetic research because of the relative ease of studying the well-preserved gene patterns in our population.
The science of genetics has in the past few decades transformed medicine as we know it and revolutionized the approach to disease prevention, diagnosis, therapy, and even cure. And although complex and hard to understand, genetics all starts with the genes. These are the tiny units contained in our cells, which, along with the environment, dictate not only how tall we get but whether we are prone to develop diabetes or heart disease, among other diseases. Tests can now predict the onset of diseases decades before they manifest themselves, thus allowing us to make important changes in lifestyle and enroll in preventive care.
Another major potential of genetics lies in understanding the role genes play in the way our bodies process chemicals. Research in this area can lead to the tailoring of drug therapy to the genetics of individual patients. For example, certain treatments like chemotherapy involve severe and debilitating side effects yet may not be equally effective in every patient. Knowing which medications are most suited for a particular person’s drug metabolism can help doctors prescribe medications in a way that maximizes their utility.
Genetic testing during pregnancy is rapidly developing, and more accurate, less invasive tests are becoming available. Some of these tests are endorsed by medical societies like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) as common-sense medicine. Learning that the unborn baby may have certain defects – whether an opening along the spine, a small hole in the heart, or a chemical imbalance – can help doctors manage the pregnancy better and plan the best method for delivery and neonatal care in order to optimize the pregnancy’s outcome. While prenatal diagnosis may not be a valid option for everyone, it should not be dismissed before learning all the benefits it affords.