Why Some Ashkenazic Women Escape Breast Cancer

Cancer Research, News — By on October 31, 2008 at 7:42 am

For researchers looking at what have become known as the “Jewish breast cancer genes,” much of the last decade has been spent identifying women who have the gene mutations and finding medical procedures to battle the breast and ovarian cancers that result.

Now many of the same scientists are striking out in bold new directions, in search of the finer mechanics of how the gene causes cancer, and in some cases, looking at how the cancer might be prevented altogether. “This is on the back of a lot of basic research,” said Georgia Chenevix-Trench, an Australian researcher who is one of the leaders of an unprecedented international study of the cancer that is expecting its first results in the next few months.

The genes, known among scientists as BRCA1 and BRCA2, are about five times more likely to be defective, or mutated, in Ashkenazic Jews than in the general population. When defective, they create a heightened risk for a number of cancers. Since they were discovered in the 1990s, the BRCAs have been among the most heavily researched of genetic mutations, thanks, in large part to interest and funding from the Jewish community.

Until now, though, scientists have largely been in the dark about why some women with the mutation get cancer and why some do not, as well as how the cancer-causing process might be stopped.

One of the new studies that is looking for answers is the Jewish Women’s Breast and Ovarian Cancer Genetics Study, which launched in late September. The study, which is being run out of New York University, is working from the knowledge that some women who have a defective version of BRCA1 and BRCA2 live long lives without ever developing cancer. A research team is setting out across the country to collect DNA samples from thousands of older Jewish women — at Hadassah lunches and book clubs — to determine why some of them did not get cancer. At a kickoff event in New York City, hosted by the Jewish Women’s Foundation, the lead geneticist on the study, Harry Ostrer, expressed his hopes for the study.
“Whatever these women have, we want to bottle it — we want to sell it,” Ostrer said only half facetiously, earning a laugh from the gathered crowd.

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