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Jewish Women's Cancer Conference Focuses on Genetic Links to Breast and Ovarian Cancers

PHILADELPHIA (April 23, 1998) -- Thanking Hadassah and American Jewish Congress for "having the foresight and wisdom to bring us all together to talk about these issues of genetics," Dr. Mary B. Daly launched her audience of some 80 Jewish women on a voyage of discovery about the genetic links to breast and ovarian cancer, the role of ethnic background and the implications genetic knowledge and testing hold for society as a whole. The Sunday conference, "Jewish Women & Breast /Ovarian Cancer: Understanding the Genetic Link," took place April 19th at Fox Chase Cancer Center in collaboration with the two Jewish organizations.

Daly, a medical oncologist and epidemiologist at Fox Chase, set the stage for subsequent discussions of specific risk factors and screening advice by describing the progress of the 15-year Human Genome Project. This international effort to identify all the genes on every human chromosome, which together make up the genome, has already led to many discoveries about genetic alterations that may lead to specific diseases.

Speaking of "the whole genetic revolution that we're all part of right now," Daly compared it to the space program. "As soon as the technology became available to move into space, there was no stopping the momentum of that program and every year we seem to move farther and farther.

"I think we're in a similar exploration of the human genome," she explained. "Now that the genetic technology is available for us to delve deeper and deeper into the human genome, we're moving forward with accelerating speed and yet with the fear and trepidation of what we might find when we learn all of these genetic aspects of ourselves."

Daly discussed the role of "breast-cancer genes" such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Normally, these genes have an important role in development, but they can pave the way for certain cancers if they become altered or cease to function properly. Most breast cancers that run in families-only 5 percent to 10 percent of all breast cancers-can be traced to inherited flaws in these genes, which raise the risk of breast and ovarian cancers in women and of prostate cancer in men.

Research indicates that between 100 and 200 different mutations may alter one of the two breast-cancer genes. Just one of these changes might lead to cancer. However, different ethnic groups may inherit just a few of these mutations. For example, a study reported last May found that three mutations were most likely to be found among Ashkenazic Jews-those with origins in central and eastern Europe.

After Daly's presentation, Fox Chase nurse practitioner Agnes Masny discussed specific risk factors and early detection and prevention techniques for both breast and ovarian cancers. Dr. Carolyn Y. Fang, a behavioral researcher at the Center, discussed the ways women cope with an increased cancer risk and how these coping mechanisms help or hinder them from following cancer screening guidelines.

A panel discussion, "Ethical, Legal and Jewish Concerns," focused on the pros and cons of genetic testing and reflected Daly's comment that "what we're doing and how we decide to craft this movement into the genetic revolution has implications for everyone."

Two panelists, Judith L. Palkovitz of Pittsburgh, Pa., national vice president of Hadassah and national chairman of its American Affairs/Domestic Policy Department, and attorney Lois Waldman of New York, N.Y., co-director of the American Jewish Congress's Commission on Law and Social Action and director of AJC's national Commission for Women's Equality, urged the need for legislation to outlaw discrimination by insurance companies, employers and others based on results of genetic tests. The third panelist, Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, a senior faculty associate of the Center of Bioethics and adjunct teaching professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, cautioned against overemphasizing or sensationalizing the role of genetics in some cases, using examples from popular media.

Christine Harrop-Stein, a Fox Chase health educator and member of the organizing committee, concluded the program with an overview of opportunities to take part in Fox Chase genetic research. Harrop-Stein works with Daly in the Center's Margaret Dyson Family-Risk Assessment Program. Developed and directed by Daly, this model program for women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer was among the first such programs in the nation.

Fox Chase Cancer Center is one of 32 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation. The Center's activities include basic and clinical research, prevention, detection and treatment of cancer and community outreach programs.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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