CNN Food and Health

Cancer gene

Scientists isolate cancer gene in Jewish women

September 30, 1995
Web posted at: 10 p.m. EDT

Jeff Levine

From Medical Correspondent Jeff Levine

BETHESDA, Maryland (CNN) -- A scientific advance in cancer research brings hope, but poses a dilemma for women who may carry a defective cancer-related gene.

For the first time, scientists have identified a population that is vulnerable to certain types of cancer. They found Jews of Eastern European descent are more likely to carry a flawed gene linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

The finding has paved the way for testing and treatment. It has also created some anxiety among Jewish women who may carry the gene.

While cancer risk has been observed in families, this is the first time researchers have found a specific group that is vulnerable to the disease.

"In studying our families, we found that three unrelated individuals had the same mutation," said Dr. Lawrence Brody of the National Institutes of Health.

Jews of Eastern European descent, or Ashkenazi Jews, are five times more likely to carry the flawed gene. Most of the seven million Jews in the United States are of European descent.

In the general population, only about 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer patients inherit their disease. But among those who carry the BRCA 1 gene, the chances of getting the tumor are 90 percent.

The American Cancer Society estimates 182,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer and 24,000 with ovarian cancer in 1994. It is not known how many of the women are Ashkenazi.

Ellen Passel

Ellen Passel, 45, says her struggle with breast cancer was eased by her ties to the Jewish community and the fact that many in her congregation had endured the same struggle.

"I didn't cook a meal. People came over with meals; people called all the time. I discovered many women in the congregation who had also had breast cancer," Passel says.

After the so-called BRCA 1 breast cancer gene was isolated last year, scientists in Israel and the United States found something striking: 1 percent of 850 genetic samples analyzed contained a dangerous defect.

Researcher Francis Collins compares the discovery to finding a single spelling error in a large book.

"There is a specific misspelling that turns up over and over again at a surprisingly high frequency of about one in a hundred," she says.

Researchers are planning a study of 5,000 Jews in the Washington, D.C., area to see how many carry the potentially fatal gene.

DNA tubes

Based on this new information about the breast cancer gene, it's possible for private companies develop a test.

This is good news for women who may want to know if they carry the gene. But others would rather not be tested since there is no cure, and a positive result could lead to genetic discrimination in insurance and employment.

Patricia Barr, an Ashkenazi Jew, says she does not see the results as cause for Ashkenazi Jewish women to seek private breast cancer testing.

National Institutes of Health researchers say they hope women will wait until more is known about the gene before trying to determine if they are risk.

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