Israeli scientists make steps toward decoding human genome


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

[Jerusalem] Scientists at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University have announced the creation of an internet tool that they hope will be a step forward in tackling illnesses associated with mutated genes passed from parents to children. A number of cancers, such as ovarian and breast cancer, are more likely to occur in people carrying genes that can be prone to mutation.

Scientists are able to identify how certain human genes correspond with specific traits in a person, such as blue eyes or a propensity towards breast cancer, but have yet to map out the entire network of correlations. By examining the evolution of a variety of animal species scientists were able to identify correlations between specific traits and their corresponding genes.

“The idea is very simple – what we are looking at is a very interesting pattern across evolution,” Dr. Yuval Tabach, a researcher from the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada at the university’s Faculty of Medicine, told The Media Line. Through study of species that had once possessed a certain quality and then lost it, such as vision in moles or cave fish, the researchers identified gene patterns.

Using this research Tabach’s team developed an internet tool which they hope will allow doctors or scientists to investigate the properties of a gene “according to its evolutionary profile.” In theory, anybody would be able to go online and use the application, with “the push of a button,” Tabach said, though the scientist did admit that interpreting all of the output information might take some understanding.

The significance of identifying gene properties was highlighted in 2013 when actress Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy after discovering she had inherited a gene mutation from her mother which increased the risk of ovarian and breast cancer. Her mother had died of the disease at 56.

In Israel the section of the population carrying gene mutations which increase their risk of breast and ovarian cancer stands at 2.5%, compared to the global average of 1%, Miri Ziv, CEO of the Israel Cancer Association, told The Media Line. In part this is due to a higher risk of carrying mutated genes among people with origins in Jewish Iraqi and Ashkenazi communities. Such is the increased risk that the National Health Service of the United Kingdom places Ashkenazi women – Jews with origins in Eastern Europe – in its high risk category for breast cancer, Ziv said. There are moves to do the same thing in Israel with increased screening for Ashkenazi and Iraqi women, the CEO added.

Like Jolie, any women who has relatives who suffered from breast cancer or who had themselves been diagnosed with the disease is recommended to seek a medical consultation to identify whether they carry the mutated gene. The genetic trait can be passed down via the father’s bloodline, not just the mother’s.

Israel bears the unique difficulty of dealing with the children and grandchildren of families who came through the Holocaust, Ziv said. They often don’t know their family histories.

But of those diagnosed with breast cancer only 10% carry the genetic marker – the remaining 90% have contracted the disease due to some other reason. This means that all women should be aware of the risks, Ziv said.

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