YU’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine Presents Seminar on Genetic Diseases and Halakhic Considerations

Mar 21, 2006 — Yeshiva University’s symposium in Israel on “Torah Umadda in the World of Medicine” presented a synthesis of cutting-edge medical research, historical genealogy and halakhic ethics.

Dr. Susan B. Bressman of YU’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine (AECOM) presented her recent findings on dystonia, Parkinson’s Disease and Ashkenazi Jews, and Dr. Rabbi Avraham Steinberg explained the halakhic and ethical aspects of screening for Jewish genetic diseases.

They spoke to a packed audience of graduates of AECOM, Parkinson’s sufferers and their families at the Yeshiva University Israel Campus in Jerusalem on March 20. The event was introduced by the recently appointed dean of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Dr. Allen M. Spiegel, who expressed the hope that the school’s scientists would move on from predicting genetic illnesses to discovering cures for them.

Dr. Bressman’s research began with a form of childhood-onset dystonia, an involuntary neurological movement disorder, which is more common in Ashkenazi Jews than in any other ethnic group. She explained that genetic research has traced the source of the genetic mutation that causes this form of dystonia to Belorussia.

Similarly, Dr. Bressman’s research into Parkinson’s Disease has put the spotlight on Ashkenazi Jews and a group of North Africans of Arab descent, who are both disproportionate carriers of the LRRK2 G2019S mutation. This suggests that Ashkenazi Jews can trace their origins back to the Middle East, along a timeline that potentially links both groups at around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. Further research is studying whether other ethnic groups who carry the same mutation might share the same historic origin.

The predisposition to genetic diseases was examined by Dr. Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, senior pediatric neurologist and director of the medical ethics unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, in his analysis of when screening for diseases may be justified. Judaism maintains that human beings have free will, but our genetic makeup may determine some of our characteristics. Most researchers agree that some genes are only partial determinants, which can be altered by our environment or overcome through our choices.

Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is permitted by halakha for serious single-gene and chromosomal disease. But new and challenging ethical questions are raised by recent research into adult onset diseases, such as breast cancer and Parkinson’s Disease.

These questions are being debated at Yeshiva University by many groups, including the new undergraduate Medical Ethics Society, which is guided by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. The group has already hosted programs about stem-cell research, PGD, contraception, and Shabbat observance and medical emergencies.

Rabbi Steinberg suggested that one of the criteria could be whether an implanted embryo would result in a happy and purposeful person. Such a test might also be used where a family wishes to choose the embryo that will give them the child who will provide the best genetic donor material for a sibling suffering with leukemia, for example, because that child would grow up to feel an added sense of purpose.

“Torah Umadda in the World of Medicine” was part of a weeklong colloquium and convocation organized by Yeshiva University. The week began with a family Shabbaton open to YU’s nearly 3,000 alumni in Israel.

It ended with an academic convocation awarding honorary doctoral degrees to Rabbanit Malke Bina, founder and educational director of MaTaN, The Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem; Victor B. Geller, a retired Jewish communal administrator, author, and lecturer, who played a leading role in YU’s Max Stern Division of Communal Services; Prof. Moshe Kaveh, an internationally renowned physicist who is president of Bar-Ilan University; and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of the city of Efrat and founder of the Ohr Torah Stone educational institutions.

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