CLEVELAND (AP) - University Hospitals plans to open a center to study genetic disease risks prevalent in the Jewish community.
The Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases will be financed with a $535,000 grant from Mount Sinai Community Partners to conduct research, education forums and genetic screening.
Supporters of the center hope it will be used by many of the region's 80,000 Jewish residents, particularly Ashkenazi Jews, those with eastern European roots.
Six percent of Ashkenazi Jews have a genetic defect that makes them susceptible to colon cancer.
Last year, the journal Science reported that people of eastern European Jewish ancestry are two to three times more likely to develop colon cancer if they have a mutation of a single gene.
Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States. There are about 148,000 new cases of colon cancer diagnosed annually, and about 56,000 people die of the disease each year.
The prevalence of cancer genes among 118 Cleveland-area Jews who took part in a 2000 study followed a pattern. Nine had a colon cancer gene and three had a gene associated with breast and ovarian cancer.
Ashkenazi Jews are believed to have a genetic risk for more than 30 diseases. The Center for Human Genetics at University Hospitals has identified 10 diseases as most critical for screening.
Some Jewish groups have said they're concerned about being sought out by medical researchers and stigmatized as genetically flawed.
"The concern is in labeling. This notion that Jews have bad genes, there's a whole psychological and sociological dimension to this," says Dr. Michael Grodin, a professor of health law and bioethics at Boston University.
Grodin said genetic testing advertisements aimed at Ashkenazis have stirred bad feelings. "There is concern about discrimination because there is a history," he said.
Others in the Jewish community believe the benefits of preventing diseases outweigh the negatives. But genetic testing provokes anxiety about discrimination by insurers and employers.
"There is reason to be concerned about how this information is going to be used," said Rabbi Eddie Sukol, president of the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis.
Sukol supports genetic testing of Jews, but he and others wonder if insurers will consider flawed genes as a pre-existing condition.
The University Hospitals center will select five of the 10 disease genes for a community outreach program, providing free testing and counseling for 500 people, said Dr. Georgia Wiesner, who directs the hospitals' human genetics program.
The Jewish genetic disease center will conduct other tests, but patients must pay for it or seek insurance coverage. The tests can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars.
Having the colon cancer gene may result in more vigilant screening for precancerous polyps. One Jewish woman who learned she had a genetic risk for breast or ovarian cancer during the 2000 campaign decided to have her ovaries removed, Wiesner said.