Cystic Fibrosis Knows No Borders

Jewish and Palestinian Doctors Partner To Educate West Bank

Seeking Answers: Researchers at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem apply their understanding of Jewish genetics and diseases such as cystic fibrosis to inherited disorders among Palestinians. A new gene is discovered about every 50 days, many from Palestinians.
avi hayun
Seeking Answers: Researchers at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem apply their understanding of Jewish genetics and diseases such as cystic fibrosis to inherited disorders among Palestinians. A new gene is discovered about every 50 days, many from Palestinians.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published August 12, 2012, issue of August 17, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

For generations, one Palestinian village just east of Jerusalem watched young adult after young adult lose their lives to a disabling disease.

Eventually, the villagers learned that the previously unnamed killer was cystic fibrosis, a recessive genetic disorder that thickens mucous in the lungs and leads to life-threatening infections. But they failed to grasp that its incidence was high because the village has a particularly high concentration of carriers — and people tended to marry within the village.

Now, Israeli doctors are working to prevent this tragedy from continuing.

Over the last ten years Eitan Kerem, a Jewish doctor from Jerusalem, has worked with a Palestinian physician in the village to create a culture of genetic testing, similar to what exists among Ashkenazi Jews for Tay Sachs disease.

Kerem, head of pediatrics and two specialty centers dealing with genetic diseases at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, helped the Palestinian physician educate locals about the disease and make blood tests commonplace.

“Most people are now marrying outside the village because of the disease,” Kerem reported. Those who marry within the village consult the local doctor before they do so, and if the proposed match involves two carriers, he helps them consider their options, including calling it off, testing fetuses during pregnancy, or screening embryos before artificial implantation.

This village — which, to avoid stigma, Kerem asked not be identified — is one example of a larger problem of genetic diseases among Palestinians. Such conditions are particularly common due to the tradition of first cousins marriage.

Hadassah’s role in dealing with genetic diseases among Palestinians doesn’t stop at known and researched disorders like cystic fibrosis. Rather, the hospital — founded and still partly funded by the eponymous U.S.-based women’s Zionist organization — is working to extend cutting-edge detective-like work to other disorders.

Dr. Eitan Kerem
Courtesy Eitan Kerem
Dr. Eitan Kerem

Orly Elpeleg, head of the genetics department, discovers a new gene on average every 50 days, many of them from Palestinians. “It’s not in the books, as the gene so often hasn’t been seen before,” she said.

Cystic fibrosis is one of the 18 genetic diseases for which Ashkenazi Jews are known to be at heightened risk, so Hadassah has expertise on the clinical level, caring for patients. But because there are more than 1,000 different mutations of the gene that causes cystic fibrosis, finding exactly what went awry in each patient is a challenge, whether the patient is Palestinian or not.

Access to Israeli resources makes the Palestinians unusual, as communities with a high level of cousin marriage rarely have access to top medical facilities. “It’s very unique to have such a high level of academic research for such a population,” said Kerem.

Palestinians arrive at Hadassah, as they do at other Israeli hospitals, through various routes. Residents of Jerusalem require no special permits and are covered by Israel’s state health insurance. From the West Bank and Gaza, some are sent and paid for by the Palestinian Authority; some arrange their own travel permits with Israeli authorities and pay for medical attention, receive it free or benefit from research grants; and some come as part of a healthcare program run and funded by the Peres Center for Peace.


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!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • 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.