Decoding the Ashkenazi Genome May Offer Clues to Cancer, Diabetes

Study of 1,500 Jews Offers Promising Progress

Thinking Big: Itsik Pe’er, a computational biologist at Columbia University is leading effort to decode 1,500 Ashkenazi Jews.
Courtesy of Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Thinking Big: Itsik Pe’er, a computational biologist at Columbia University is leading effort to decode 1,500 Ashkenazi Jews.

By Elie Dolgin

Published August 05, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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Dr. Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist at Einstein, thinks that completing this project will create a blueprint against which anyone — particularly those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent — could compare his or her own genetic data. “We’re going to be increasingly approached by people who say, ‘Okay, I have my genome sequenced. Can you help me understand it?’” he says. “So, our having catalogues of well-annotated variants that say ‘here’s what we know’ is going to be very important to people.”

The consortium hopes to raise between $5 million and $10 million to sequence some 400 to 500 healthy individuals and at least 100 individuals with each of nine different conditions: breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, dystonia (a neurological movement disorder), Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, birth defects, Gaucher’s disease, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They also aim to map the genomes of 100 centenarians with extreme longevity and good health.

The organizers have some funding from the National Institutes of Health, the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation and several private donors, but they are nowhere near their target dollar amount. That’s why the website for the Ashkenazi Genome Project currently serves largely as a portal for collecting donations.

Donors can fund the cost of specialized computers, individual genome reads and staff scientists. Plus, says Lencz, “naming opportunities are available” — either for Lencz’s laboratory or for the entire project.

Smaller donations are welcome, too, but participation is not.

For the project, Lencz and his colleagues are using blood samples collected from previous studies.

Elie Dolgin is a senior news editor for the journal Nature Medicine, in Cambridge, Mass. Contact him at feedback@forward.com


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