2009 | The Human Blueprint: Jewish Perspectives on Modern Genetics

On Sunday, October 18, 2009, Yeshiva University’s Student Medical Ethics Society (MES) hosted its fourth annual conference, entitled The Human Blueprint: Jewish Perspectives on Modern Genetics. The conference was able to provide participants with a broad foundation for the medical background needed to understand human genetics, as well as the technologically advanced medical research and practices used today to prevent and manage genetic diseases. Topics covered included reproductive genetics, cancer genetics, personalized medicine, aging and longevity and more. Participants also were introduced to an overview of the fundamental ethical dilemmas surrounding genetics, as well as how the system of Halacha (Jewish law) approaches these complex issues. In addition to gaining broad knowledge in medical, ethical, and Halachik issues of modern genetics, participants were able to choose from a series of specialized tracks, each geared towards an in-depth analysis of the most pressing issues in the field. These tracks included genetics and law, DNA and forensics, behavioral genetics, DNA Shoah, and Familial Dysautonomia (FD). The individual sessions were all guided by leading rabbis, physicians, and lawyers all of whom are experts with ample experience in their fields of genetics and Halacha.

Session Descriptions

Plenary I: Reproductive Genetics

Adrienne Asch Ph.D., M.S. , Rabbi Kenneth Brander , Susan Lobel M.D.

The conference will begin by discussing genetics at the beginning of human life in a discourse on reproductive genetics. Reproductive genetics is a vastly intricate topic with many pertinent issues such as parental responsibility toward embryonic, prenatal, and newborn screening. Additionally, new technological advances for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and the moral and ethical issues of genetic screening and selecting offspring characteristics will be discussed.

Plenary II: Cancer Genetics

Harry Ostrer M.D. , Rochelle Shoretz Esq. , Rabbi Moshe Tendler Ph.D. , Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Currently, science researchers are discovering genetic mutations in cancer, which may help in developing cancer therapy treatments. Mutations on the BRCA gene have been found to be more common in Ashkenasic Jews, which increases the risk of developing breast cancer. This session will discuss the medical background regarding BRCA, testing for mutations of the gene, and different challenges a carrier may face and how supports groups like Sharsheret can provide emotional and educational support.

Plenary III: Frontiers in Modern Technology

Gil Atzmon Ph.D. , Harry Ostrer M.D. , Wayne A. Rosenkrans Ph.D. , Rabbi Hershel Schachter

This plenary will explore how the newest medical research can help to prevent and manage genetic diseases. Scientific and medical research projects such as personalized medicine, aging and longevity, and the Jewish HapMap Project seek to study and analyze specific populations. These programs are crucial to comprehend our individual genetic characteristics in order to treat disease.

Breakout Sessions

Breakout 1: Behavioral Genetics

John Loike Ph.D.

This session will be given by Dr. John Loike, Co-Director for Graduate Studies in the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Loike will address issues of genetic predisposition to certain modes of behavior including violent tendency and proclivity for infidelity. He will guide an exploration of this topic using specific case studies and will delve into the most recent research concerning the genetic influence on human behavior.

Breakout 2: DNA Shoah Project

Matt Kaplan

This session will feature Matthew Kaplan, research coordinator, and Syd Mandelbaum, co-founder of the DNA Shoah Project. The DNA Shoah Project is working towards the compilation of DNA from a host of survivors of the Shoah (Hebrew term for Holocaust) and their descendants. Their work is geared towards reuniting families which have been divided by the Holocaust with the eventual goal of identifying Holocaust era remains. This break out session will describe the methods employed by this noble organization in their efforts of familial reunification and forensic identification.

Breakout 3: Familial Dysautonomia

Berish Rubin Ph.D.

Dr. Berish Rubin Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Fordham University, will discuss Familial Dysautonomia (FD), an autosomal recessive genetic disease affecting Ashkenasic Jews. In 2000, Dr. Rubin discovered the gene mutation for Familial Dysautonomia. His research has since sought to discover possible therapies for treating patients diagnosed with FD. Dr. Rubin will present on testing for FD as well as his innovative research.

Breakout 4: Innocence Project: DNA and Forensics

Madeline deLone Esq.

This session will be presented by Madeline deLone, Executive Director of the Innocence Project. This session will discuss the various causes of wrongful incarceration. The Innocence Project undertakes forensic investigation and litigation to liberate the unjustly imprisoned with the ultimate goal of establishing policy reform in the US justice system.

Breakout 5: Law and genetics: Public Policy

Shelly J. Klien Esq.

This session, to be give by Ms. Shelley Klein Esq., National Director of Advocacy at Hadassah, will discuss the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) which was passed by Congress in 2008. This law prohibits American insurance companies from discriminating against individuals who are genetically predisposed to various illnesses. Further, Ms. Klein will delve into the impact of modern genetics on American public policy.

Breakout 6: Rabbinic Question and Answer session

Rabbi Hershel Schachter

This session, led by Rabbi Herschel Shacter, Rosh Yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, will be a forum of inquiry exclusively for Rabbis and rabbinic seminary students.