British Scientist Toys With Theory of a Jewish Zeal for Genetics

Dr. Leroi: Fear of endemic disorders could explain prominence of Israelis and Jews in genetic research.

Did Jewish mothers put Israel at the forefront of genetics with their zeal for successful children? At a debate here last month, acclaimed British geneticist and television personality Dr. Armand Leroi said he is willing to entertain this theory.

Leroi, who researches the evolution of development at Imperial College London, spoke about the moral implications of prenatal and postnatal genetic screening. According to the event's organizer, British Council Science and Education Officer Sonia Feldman, the debate was the first of its kind in Israel.

Speaking to an audience of 200 people at the Hemda Center in central Tel Aviv, Leroi appeared quite optimistic vis-a-vis future applications for genetic testing. He noted that hundreds of genetic tests are currently in use and new ones are being developed. Some are performed on embryos, while others are used just after birth to identify genetic disorders. Carrier testing identifies aspiring parents carrying one copy of a gene mutation that, when present in two copies, causes a genetic disorder.

Fear of endemic disorders, Leroi says, could explain the prominence of Israelis and Jews worldwide in genetic research. One example, he said, was Tay-Sachs Disease, a fatal, hereditary condition especially prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews. "When the Jewish community, including the ultra-Orthodox, was asked to rule on genetic testing 20 years ago, it answered in the positive," Leroi said. But he admitted that genetic screening, which all the panelists said is particularly well developed in Israel, has its problematic aspects.

"Should we be afraid of genetic screening? Definitely yes," Leroi told the audience, with the dramatic flair that served him in last year's three successful Channel 4 (Britain) documentary series, "Human Mutants," "Alien Worlds" and "What makes Us Human." "But we mustn't allow our fears to rule us."

Pointing to his fellow panelists - Prof. Eitan Friedman of the Oncogenetics Department at Sheba Hospital, Tel Hashomer; Gali Ben Or of the Justice Ministry and philosopher Dr. Yehuda Meltzer - Leroi warned against entrusting them with genetics. "Scientists mustn't have the power. Don't give it to the government, and the philosophers shouldn't get it either," he said.

Turning to the moderator, Arad Nir of Israel Channel 2 News, he added: "And don't give it to the media. Only the common people should hold this power, and for that they need to learn about it - which is exactly what you're all doing."

Meltzer, the philosopher, opted to focus on the potential negative effects of genetic screening, such as prohibitive health insurance premiums in the event that insurance companies be given access to obtain genetic data.

Leroi said the government should protect people from such scenarios, but people also need protection from the government. "I fear the potential of saving billions of dollars by eliminating genetic illness might prove too tempting for governments, so people have to stay alert to this," Leroi said. He said that genetic complications cost an estimated $51 billion annually in the U.S.