Life-changing community genetic screening

September 22, 2022 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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For over 25 years, Wolper Jewish Hospital has been at the forefront of genetic screening for the Jewish community. In fact, its preconception screening program was the first community genetics program to operate in Australia.

“A Community Genetics Program is one that is specially designed to screen for gene faults that are more common within a particular culture or ethnic group – in this case the Jewish community, ” explains Richard Glass, president of Wolper Jewish Hospital.

Since 1995, Wolper’s preconception genetic screening program has enabled individuals and couples to undergo genetic screening prior to starting their families. The program, offered in conjunction with NSW Health, screens for a number of gene faults that are more common in people with Jewish ancestry that can lead to devastating conditions such as Tay Sachs disease. The screening will indicate whether participants are at risk of having a child with one of these conditions and has been highly successful.

“In fact, since the program’s inception, not one Tay Sachs affected child has been born to parents that have undergone screening through the Wolper program,” Glass continued.

The preconception program includes screening of year 11 high school students at Emanuel College, Kesser Torah College, Masada College, Moriah College and Reddam House high schools for 9 gene faults.

For individuals and couples that did not undergo such screening at school, free genetic screening is available for 11 genetic conditions, including Tay Sachs disease. Alternatively, people may opt to pay a laboratory fee for more extensive screening of several hundred conditions.

Today, the Wolper Jewish Hospital Community Genetics Program has expanded beyond preconception screening. It now includes the BRCA JeneScreen program which screens for gene faults that can lead to certain types of cancers.

The BRCA JeneScreen program screens for 3 gene faults within the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes which have been shown to be more common in people of Jewish ancestry. Faults in these genes can predispose people to higher risks of breast, ovarian or prostate cancer.

“The knowledge that they carry a fault in one of these genes gives people the opportunity to make informed decisions about the preventative options available to them and can enable early cancer detection. For most people, genetic screening provides reassurance but, for others, it enables choices that can change their life and that of their children,” said Dr Lesley Andrews, senior clinician at Prince of Wales Hospital and Wolper Board member

Noa Benav, the principal of a Sydney based consulting firm, recently participated in JeneScreen. ‘I am so pleased I participated in JeneScreen after I was encouraged to do so by a friend,’ she said. ‘Happily I tested negative. A year after the screening a family member was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was equipped with the reassuring knowledge that I did not carry the BRCA gene fault and therefore I know I’m not at a high risk of developing breast cancer myself. I know today how common breast cancer is, and how important it is to understand what risk category you fit into.’

The innovative approach adopted by the Wolper Jewish Hospital Community Genetics Program means that genetic screening has never been more accessible. People interested in the preconception and BRCA JeneScreen programs will receive comprehensive information about genetics and how the programs work via the program website. Once the decision is made to go ahead and consent is given, a testing kit is provided through the mail in the form of a cheek or saliva swab. Testing is quick and easy and takes place at home, with the sample returned to the laboratory for analysis through the post.

Results are made available via email or a phone call from a genetic counsellor who is available at no cost throughout the screening process, and afterwards, to ensure any participant with a positive result receives appropriate care.

“Wolper Jewish Hospital is proud to support this life changing program”, said Richard Glass, “which we will continue to evolve as technology and medical practice enables us to.

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