Several professional titles grace Gad Rennert’s signature, giving him charge of Clalit’s National Cancer Control Center and Personalized Medicine Program, and its Breast and Colorectal Cancer Detection Program. Clalit is Israel’s largest health provider. He is also a Technion professor at The Ruth and Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and chairman of the Department of Community Medicine and Epidemiology at the Technion-affiliated Carmel Medical Center.
Dr. Rennert wears many hats, but his interests are mostly focused on cancer genetics. Renowned for his large-scale studies of breast cancer and BRCA gene mutations in Israeli women, he has launched the First International Conference on “Founder Populations and their Contribution to our Understanding of Biology and History – Lessons from the Jewish Genome” (July 10-13, Haifa, Israel). We recently had the opportunity to interview him about this most exciting initiative.
What makes this gathering the first of its kind?
We are trying to do something different by focusing on the concept of founder populations — populations that can be traced back to a time in history when they all originated from the same source. This is the first international conference of this type, aimed at evaluating the contributions made by studying one of the most significant founder populations in the world — the Jewish community.
Ashkenazim are a founder population because they have kept their cohesiveness for generations. That has led to discoveries in the genetics of Ashkenazi Jews, which in turn has contributed to global science. BRCA gene mutations, for example, which put women at risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer, are prevalent in this population. While we know three mutations in Ashkenazi Jews, we now know hundreds more in non-Ashkenazim that would not have been detected had it not been for the Jews.
Also, genetic meetings can be so esoteric that attendees who are not in the exact field might feel lost. We will be a multidisciplinary group of clinical geneticists, population geneticists, genealogists and more so that a broad range of professionals, as well as lay people, can participate.
Can you give us a glimpse into the conference highlights?
We’ll be dealing with various issues of wide interest such as uncovering your genetic origins, using your genes to deduce risk of chronic disease, and employing large-scale initiatives to genetically characterize large populations. In the session “Genetics Meets History,” Near-East scholars, historians and genealogists will talk about the movement of Jewish and Mediterranean populations around the world and what that tells us about the Biblical stories. Is there genetic evidence to confirm that the Exodus really took place? Did King Solomon and Queen Sheba leave genetic evidence in Ethiopia? Other talks will discuss the current and future demography of the Jewish people.
The cadre of speakers is impressive. Professor Robert Winston of Imperial College London, a member of UK’s House of Lords and a world-renowned fertility expert and science commentator, will open the meeting with a talk about the promise of genetics. Eric Green, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Washington, D.C., will present President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, a plan to draw the genetic map of American populations. Spencer Wells, head of the National Geographic Genographic Project, will talk about genetically mapping the world populations. We will close with an address by Sir Walter Bodmer, one of the most significant geneticists living today.
The first step of the Human Genome Project was to create the human genetic map, but the next step is to use it. People are sitting at home not knowing their risk of disease. If we actively seek them out and test them, we could potentially save lives. That raises other issues. Our session on genetic screening will feature a law professor and clinical geneticists, including one of the world’s leading medical-halachic ethicists.
Which diseases will be covered?
One session will deal with cancer syndromes, including the Jewish genes involved in breast and ovarian, lung, and colon cancers. Another will be devoted to non-cancerous syndromes that are prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as the genetics of Jewish aging. We will also talk about the genetic syndromes found in Israeli Druze, Bedouins and the Arabs of Galilee.
What do you hope this conference will accomplish?
Genetics is a fast-moving science. I hope the multidisciplinary approach will encourage professionals to think out of the box, improve their understanding and develop new ideas. More important, our mission for the layperson is to change attitudes. We want genetics to be something you talk about, something you deal with — something that empowers people rather than frightens. Understanding and empowerment come with education.
Please join us! If you are interested in learning more about your genealogy or are already planning a visit to Israel this summer, we encourage you to spend the day with us in Haifa.
Please click here to learn more and register for the conference. http://www.foundergenomics.com