This summer, Einstein joined other members of The Ashkenazi Genome Consortium (TAGC) in hosting the symposium, "Genetic Research and Discovery in Jewish Populations: Toward Large-Scale Sustainable Efforts." The daylong event paired members of TAGC, an international collaboration of researchers studying the genetics of diseases (including cancer and mental illness) in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, with principal investigators of center grants and large grants at New York-based research institutions and staff members of the National Institutes for Health (NIH).
"The main question that was posed was 'Why study Ashkenazi Jews?'" noted Dr. Gil Atzmon, associate professor of medicine and of genetics, who teamed with Drs. Harry Ostrer, Nicole Schreiber-Agus and Itsik Pe'er to organize the all-day event.
"Our goal in hosting the symposium was to highlight the ways that medical genetics/ personalized medicine might benefit from studies currently involving Ashkenazi Jews and the ways in which researchers working this population might benefit from genetic and genomic research," added Dr. Ostrer, who is professor of pathology, of genetics and of pediatrics at Einstein.
In offering opening remarks, Dr. Allen M. Spiegel, the Marilyn and Stanley M. Katz Dean at Einstein, noted how advances in genomics have allowed for the screening of potential carriers of rare and other heritable disorders and how the advent of "pharmacogenomics" offers avenues for personalizing treatment.
Dr. Ostrer then discussed how genetically homogenous populations, like the Ashkenazi Jews and the Amish, offer particular opportunities for furthering our understanding of some disorders and mutations. He said, "Because they represent an isolated population, they are at increased risk for being carriers of diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Crohn's disease, and have increased prevalence of mutations that increase risk for breast and ovarian cancer. This can be leveraged for research, since the homogenous make-up of genomic information that can be accessed makes it easier to identify the mutations responsible."
In addition to exploring how the study of Ashkenazi Jewish genetics can aid science, the symposium included presentations by investigators conducting other large population studies, including Dr. Robert Kaplan (Einstein) a co-investigator of the Hispanic Community Health Study / Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL) and Dr. Alan Suldiner (University of Maryland), founder of the University of Maryland Amish Research Clinic. And, Dr. Judy Cho (Yale) and Dr. Inga Peter (Mount Sinai) discussed the genetics of Crohn's disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease that affects genetically susceptible individuals.
Those attending the symposium also took part in discussion groups. Members discussed characteristics essential to building successful research centers, such as the importance of responding to the needs of the community, as well as the need to establish collaborations within academia that allow for harmonization, openness and sharing of data to better leverage existing resources and to obtain competitive funding through private foundations, philanthropists and the NIH.
Dr. Ostrer concluded the event by thanking all participants. "From the information gathered here today, a new research proposal will emerge that will encourage both local efforts as well as shared efforts across institutions."
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