Picture of Good Health: A Q&A with Susan Gross

By Elie Dolgin

Published August 03, 2011, issue of August 12, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Yeshiva University officially launched its new Program for Jewish Genetic Health with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in February. But the program’s roots go back much further than that.

Inspired by Yeshiva’s Tay-Sachs community screens of the 1970s, Dr. Susan Gross, medical director of the human genetics laboratory at the Jacobi Medical Center, launched a pilot effort five years ago to provide New York’s Jewish community with accessible and affordable testing for recessive genetic diseases.

The effort was such a success, with thousands of young couples tested at synagogues and universities across New York City and around the country, that last year Gross formalized a relationship between Yeshiva University and its affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine — and the program was born.

Gross didn’t want to stop with just prenatal screening, however. At its core, the program has two other pillars: community and rabbinical awareness, and providing support for the Jewish community around a multitude of genetic health issues. Gross spoke with the Forward about how the new program can help Jews with genetic health concerns.

What does it really mean to talk about “Jewish genetic health”?

It may just be words, but there’s something extremely positive about using the word “health.” We didn’t find it in the name of most Jewish genetic programs out there, although it is the underpinning of everything they do. Rather, we found a lot of emphasis on disease and disorder. But there are two aspects to health: One is preventative medicine; the other is therapies and cures — and it’s absolutely both of those that we’re after. Hopefully, the word “health” will lend a sense of empowerment to the Jewish community.

Beyond the name, what makes Yeshiva’s program different from other centers dedicated to Jewish genetics?

Let’s start with the more technical and mundane aspect: We’re based in New York. So, we have the largest center of Jewish life in our greater metro area. We are also affiliated with a Jewish university that was founded on the Jewish principle of “Torah u’mada” — which is the integration of Torah and secular knowledge such as science — and a medical school, which is really about moving those values into the health sphere. But, obviously, we have broader global and national aspirations here, and we have no interest in duplicating what other organizations do. We have decided that our primary mission and goal is to be a hub. We have an open-door policy, and we want to work with other organizations. So, it’s really a synergy moment.

How do your community genetic screening events work?

In certain communities, there’s a backlog of people wanting to get tested who simply can’t afford it. It’s not cheap, especially working through commercial labs and dealing with insurance issues. So, we came up with a way to make testing sufficiently affordable to break the logjam. A large portion of the money we raise for our program is set aside for individuals who are uninsured or underinsured, which means nobody will be turned away because of monetary issues. However, we first determine each individual’s insurance coverage so we don’t use donor funds unnecessarily. So far, we’ve helped facilitate the screening of 4,500 people here in New York City and other communities throughout the U.S., at cost.

What exactly is the “centralized resource and support center” that you’ve created?

That is our way of saying Jewish genetic testing and screening programs are super important, life-saving work. But with the explosion of genetics out there, we need to move forward with all the other genetic issues impacting our community as well. For example, Yeshiva is an avid supporter of Gift of Life, and we hope to work with them to help complete the Jewish bone marrow registries so no more lives are lost due to a lack of a donor match. We also want to work with groups such as Sharsheret, so we can face heritable breast cancer as a community with an eye on both prevention and cure. By saying “community resource center,” we want to be an access point for all the different disease-specific organizations and a “turn-to” for people in need.

What kind of biomedical research and development is the center currently conducting?

We’re currently looking at ways of further refining our platelet assay for Tay-Sachs. Our lab is the only one that offers this test, and its accuracy is excellent, but we’re looking at platform development using new computer technologies to see if we can process samples faster. One of the papers we just submitted is also about a relatively new mutation for Tay-Sachs. So, we’re actually trying to understand how this mutation alters enzyme function. This may not help the carrier-screening program in the short term, but we’re not going to get toward a cure or even treatment if we don’t understand this underlying gene better. As for research, we are in the early stages of collaborating with other organizations, but it is too early to discuss specifics.

Contact Elie Dolgin at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.