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An unexpected source of light in the Chanukah season

menorah with 8 armsI spent last Wednesday morning attending a conference on Rett Syndrome at Einstein. Let me start this blog by saying that Rett Syndrome is not a “Jewish genetic disease.” In brief, it is a neuro-developmental disorder that primarily affects girls, in which they start to develop normally but then lose motor functions and also develop seizures, cognitive disability, and a host of other symptoms (learn more about Rett Syndrome here). Rett Syndrome is caused by mutations in the MECP2 gene which is located on the X chromosome.   A friend of mine asked me what prompted me to attend this specific conference, given my current focus on Jewish genetics. I told him that I love to learn, I was impressed by the lineup of clinical and scientific expert speakers, and I knew that a lot of the Einstein genetics people would be in the room. In the end, these factors paled in comparison to what left the biggest impression on me that day—the presentation by Monica Coenraads, whose teenage daughter Chelsea is affected by Rett Syndrome.

Monica began her presentation by showing home-video footage of Chelsea’s first four years.  During the first year, there were the typical clips of first smiles, first solid foods, first rolling over.   After that…the realization that milestones were not being met, Chelsea’s developmental regression, the search for a diagnosis, the fear of that diagnosis, and then the adjustment to living with the diagnosis.  Monica’s presentation continued with an eloquent overview of the syndrome, in which she interposed videos of Chelsea manifesting many of the symptoms.  She also showed Chelsea’s educational and therapeutic support teams, and a massive amount of Chelsea’s specialized equipment and furniture.  It was clear that Monica has not left one stone unturned in her care and support of Chelsea, in the context of her entire family (and she even brought the whole audience to tears as she described how Chelsea was able to express, with the help of a communication device, that she wanted to attend a prom and then was able to do so escorted by her brother).  On top of all this, Monica has made a huge impact on the global Rett syndrome scene, in part by establishing two foundations that fund research for Rett syndrome treatments and cures.

Several of the scientists who presented at the conference specified that Monica Coenraads motivates them in their research endeavors and prompts them to push their creative limits further.  From the brief encounter I had with Monica (i.e., watching her powerpoint presentation in a dark auditorium), I see Monica as a source of light.  Monica and other parents of children with disabilities and genetic diseases restructure their expectations, perspectives, and daily lives because of these children.  Sometimes it takes people like Monica to help us parents re-calibrate with respect to what think we can/cannot handle and also re-invigorate for new undertakings.

May the spirit of Chanukah give strength to parents and caregivers like Monica, as well as shed light upon research efforts aimed at finding cures.

BRCA testing for all Jews? BRCA testing for everyone?

news 2Co-written by PJGH genetic counselors Estie Rose and Chani Wiesman

This week was a very busy and exciting week for us at the Program for Jewish Genetic Health (PJGH)!  Late last week, the New York Times published two articles describing the findings and ramifications of published research conducted by renowned geneticists in the US and Israel. The first article describes a study done by Dr. Ephrat Levy-Lahad at Shaare Zedek hospital, who concluded that ALL Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish individuals should be tested for BRCA mutations—not just those individuals with family histories of breast and/or ovarian cancers. Since about 1 in 40 Ashkenazis will carry a cancer-predisposing BRCA mutation, genetic testing was suggested for everyone at a young age.  Then, in case a mutation is present, it is better to find out at a preventable stage.

The second article quotes the scientist who discovered BRCA’s association with cancer and who partnered on the Israeli study, Dr. Mary –Claire King. Dr. King’s statements took this one step further, as she called for screening all American woman 30 or older regardless of race or ethnic background—not just Ashkenazis!

Our inboxes have been flooded and the phones have been ringing all week with inquires about these articles.  So how do we feel about these statements? If you have been listening to the news, the media made it sound like these are new ‘guidelines’ or ‘recommendations,’ but we prefer the word ‘opinions.’ These opinions come from a good place, where people want to prevent illness, but they are also somewhat controversial and may be considered by some to be extreme.

For starters, we think it is important to take a step back and spell out what’s so important about BRCA in the Jewish community.  After that, we will get to the “PJGH response” to these studies.

We have spoken about BRCA many (many, many!) times in this blog, but we never actually told you why it is related to the Jewish community (our oversight!). BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations (mistakes in the genes) cause a significantly increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer, as well as some other cancers.  Just like there are certain mutations for other diseases that are more common in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, there are three specific mutations in the BRCA genes that are more commonly found in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. Numerous studies have found that between 1 in 40 and 1 in 100 Ashkenazi Jews will carry one of those three BRCA mutations and are therefore likely at an increased risk for cancer. If someone is Ashkenazi Jewish and has a BRCA mutation, the vast majority of the time, it is one of those three mutations. Furthermore, that 1 in 40 – 1 in 100 carrier frequency holds true regardless of personal or family history of cancer. So if you take any random group of 100 Ashkenazi Jews, 1 or 2 of them is likely to carry a BRCA mutation, even if he/she doesn’t have a personal or family history of cancer.

This is a big deal, and it’s a huge community issue.

So what is our current response?

Insurance Coverage and Genetic Testing: Part 3

Image courtesy of http://401kcalculator.org

Image courtesy of http://401kcalculator.org

Before I move on to other (and potentially more interesting) topics to blog about, there are just a few more important things related to genetic testing insurance coverage which are worthwhile discussing. Remember that this insurance terminology dictionary should be helpful for other topics which I don’t discuss here.

I’ve mentioned before how expensive genetic testing can be. Depending on the test, and what technology is being used, each separate genetic test could cost up to a few thousand dollars. When multiple genetic tests are being done, this can rapidly add up. Your insurance company knows this and therefore, has very specific criteria which govern when they will cover genetic testing.

This post is mostly about insurance preauthorization (“pre-auth”). This is otherwise known as a prior authorization, precertification, or predetermination. Different insurance companies may have different names for this process, but the gist is usually the same. This is a process that you or your healthcare provider initiates with your insurance company whereby you ask them to determine if they will pay for a specific service (in our case, genetic testing). Often times, your insurance company will require that you go through the preauthorization process before you pursue genetic testing.

So what is involved in a preauthorization? The insurance company will request that you give them a lot of information about the genetic testing which is being done.  They will want the name of the lab which is actually performing your testing, the name of the doctor ordering your testing, and all of the applicable identification numbers, certification numbers, and contact information associated with your doctor, and the genetics lab.

Then, they’ll want to know where the genetic test is being done and exactly which test will be ordered. It is important to understand that when you do a pre-auth, you cannot rely on the insurance agent involved in your case to know about each and every test that exists. Just saying “a genetic test” or even “a genetic test for cystic fibrosis” will not be enough information for them. This is because there may be multiple genetic tests available for cystic fibrosis, each with its own testing methodology and precision (and therefore price!). Each genetic test actually had a code (or sometimes multiple codes) which identifies it to the insurance company and explains to them what exactly is being done. These codes are called CPT codes and you can get the precise CPT codes you need from the lab performing the test.

The next piece of information the insurance company needs is the indication for your testing, which is also provided in the form of a code called an ICD-9 code. ICD-9 codes vary from broad to specific; some examples include “family history of breast cancer” as an indication for BRCA testing and “café au lait spots” as the reason for ordering genetic testing for neurofibromatosis type 1. ICD-9 codes are important to the insurance companies because they are used to determine if the genetic testing is appropriate for you. You (or your doctor) cannot order a genetic test just because you want it done, and expect your insurance to cover it.

Finally, once this preauthorization has been started, your insurance company will want clinical information. This may be in the form of medical records, imaging studies, or pedigrees, or they may request that a letter of medical necessity be submitted by your healthcare provider. A letter of medical necessity is basically a document written by your healthcare provider that explains their argument for why the insurance company should pay for your testing. Often times it not only includes information about your medical history, but also information about how the testing will be helpful for your future care, and specifically what might change in your medical care based on this testing. It might even cite recent medical literature where genetic testing has made a major difference in situations similar to yours.

The insurance preauthorization process can take anywhere from weeks to months, depending on your insurance company. And even if the preauthorization is approved, it is never a guarantee that your testing will be covered. If the preauthorization is “denied” there is often an appeals process that you can go through to try and change their minds.

So you can see that the process is quite complex and time consuming. Physicians and genetic counselors have a lot of experience with pre-auths, so do not be shy to ask for help if you are overwhelmed with the process!

Genetic Testing at Birth-Is it too Early?

 

UntitledI recently saw a 50-something year old man for a cancer genetic counseling session. When we got to the concept that mutations in the BRCA genes may increase someone’s risk to develop breast and/or ovarian cancer, he was amazed. He said to me, “If the technology exists for someone to know his or her genetic risk to develop cancer, and there may be something to do to reduce these risks, wouldn’t it make sense to learn this information when someone is young?”

I was pleased to hear this question since it proved to me that he was really paying attention, and although he didn’t realize it, he touched on an issue which is very timely in the world of genetics and ethics.  The issue of whole genome sequencing (reading through all of someone’s genes to look for variation) is a hot topic in genetics. Currently, the reasons we might order any genetic testing are if there is an underlying medical issue for the individual, a family history of an issue, or if someone is from an ethnic group that has known founder mutations for particular diseases. When we do this sort of testing, we are looking for relevant mutations in one or more genes or chromosomes.

But recently, scientists have introduced the notion of testing the entire genome of all newborns-even those who are seemingly healthy. (Note: I am not talking about the Newborn Screening panel—AKA “heel stick test” or “PKU test”—which is mandatory in the United States, and tests for about 30-55 diseases, depending on the state).  And to make things sound even more exciting, the first baby to ever have his genome sequenced prenatally was born last month in California!

Back in November 2012, Nicole blogged about her discomfort of whole genome testing, as opposed to targeting the genetic testing to the medical issue at hand.  When we do whole genome sequencing, we are going to learn about that person’s traits, carrier status, predispositions to childhood and adult-onset disease,  and we may even diagnose a disease, possibly presymptomatically (ie- before the person even starts exhibiting symptoms). Some might think that all this information is great, since it’s better to know now than to be surprised when it happens.

Others believe that this type of testing for newborns is unethical. Here are a couple of reasons why:

1-The genes belong to the child, not the parents. Shouldn’t it be up to that child to make this decision?

2- Say we learn that the child is genetically predisposed to having Parkinson’s disease. This most likely will not happen for another 50 or so years, and it may never happen at all.  Does he want to be that person who is just waiting to get sick? This may cause anxiety, stigma, and may change the way his family and friends perceives him.

3- If someone learns from a young age that he has a genetic predisposition to a condition, he may ignore the other (non-genetic) risk factors. For example, let’s say someone learns that he has a genetic variant that leads to a high chance of developing diabetes. He may not try to eat healthy foods or exercise or go for checkups because he believes that his genes alone will determine his risk for diabetes. This is what we call “genetic determinism.”

I told my patient that he did not realize that he had opened up a can of worms and that we would need a whole new session just to discuss his question. But he definitely got me thinking.

 

The PJGH goes camping

camp pjgh banner

As a scientist, I am used to running experiments, and, par for the course, oftentimes these experiments fail. I am pleased to blog here about an experiment we ran this past week at Einstein that proved to be a huge success! Specifically, the Program for Jewish Genetic Health (PJGH) ran its first ever Jewish Genetics Bootcamp, and for this endeavor I temporarily changed my role from Program Director to Camp (co-)Director (along with our two amazing PJGH genetic counselors Chani and Estie).

The camp was envisioned as a mechanism to introduce high school and college students who have expressed future career interests in genetics to the field (from the PJGH perspective). While students in this category sometimes intern with us or alternatively are mentored by us in more informal ways, unfortunately we cannot accommodate all requests for this. Camp, or more appropriately bootcamp (keep reading this blog…), was our three-day solution to this problem.

We decided to keep the inaugural group of campers small, since we thought this would facilitate interactions between the campers and the staff. Fortunately, the campers who joined proved to be outgoing, inquisitive, and insightful—which led to lots of questions, discussion, and debate. We even picked up 2 crashers!—undergrads who happened to be on the Einstein campus for summer research programs.

Camp PJGH centered around half-day sessions, presented by Chani and Estie, on three main topics: clinical genetics/genetic testing, Jewish genetic diseases that can affect offspring of carrier couples (e.g., Tay-Sachs and Familial Dysautonomia), and inherited cancer predisposition syndromes (e.g., hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome due to BRCA). Another more future-looking session was entitled “Expanding panels, expanding ancestries, and expanding technologies.”

Aside from these formal sessions, we also exposed the campers to a variety of genetics professionals—a genetic counselor, a PhD scientist, an MD reproductive geneticist, an MD pediatric geneticist, and an MD fertility specialist. The presenters reviewed their training paths, shared what their typical workdays look like, and divulged their most/least favorite aspects of their jobs. The campers were intrigued by the fact that many of us have had “turning points” that have resulted in the refocusing of career paths. For me in particular, my transitions have been from research scientist to clinical laboratory scientific director to PJGH program director. When describing the last transition, I was really able to convey how my journey has led me to a remarkable endpoint where I am able combine my scientific background with the service of the Jewish community.

Finally, during the camp’s self-study sessions, the campers were guided through current newspaper articles that were a little more controversial in nature—addressing questions such as should healthy adults (or even healthy babies!) undergo whole genome sequencing, or should all Ashkenazi Jewish individuals be tested for the common BRCA mutations. And, for night activity (okay, it was really homework), the campers were encouraged to visit selected websites including our very own online learning platform, and also were provided with some on-theme book and movie recommendations.

And the experimental result and conclusions are already in. In the campers’ anonymous post-camp evaluations, camp was deemed a big hit! One camper even remarked “it made me realize how much awareness needs to be raised, and how much I want to be involved with genetics in the future.”

I am looking forward to a reunion with season 1 campers, and to planning for season 2!

P.S. And yes, we most definitely had s’mores. But there were no tents and it wasn’t a sleepover camp (although one camper remarked that next time we run a bootcamp, it should be longer than 3 days!)

 

Philip’s Dad, an Inspiration

Last week, my neighbor invited me over to meet his friend, Philip, and Philip’s dad.  Philip is a 26 year old man who has familial dysautonomia (FD). FD is a genetic disease that affects the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions such as digestion, breathing, production of tears, and the regulation of blood pressure and body temperature. It also affects the sensory nervous system, which controls activities related to the senses, such as taste and the perception of pain, heat, and cold. Many individuals with FD have learning disabilities and many are wheelchair-bound. FD is one of the most common genetic conditions in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, with a carrier frequency of about 1 in 30. Today, Ashkenazi Jews around the world are routinely screened for mutations in the FD gene–among many other diseases–through genetics clinics and private physicians’ offices (click here for screening resources offered by our Program for Jewish Genetic Health). Without the ability to identify and counsel carriers, the disease’s incidence among Ashkenazi babies would be 1 in 3,600!

Philip and his father greeted me with smiles and were eager to talk with me about one of Philip’s fascinations and expertises, the Jewish calendar. Since I am not too familiar with the nuances of the calendar and lunar holidays, we ended up reminiscing about popular Nickelodeon game shows from the 1990s (which was a lot of fun!). Philip’s father stuck around for this conversation. I was surprised since he could have taken a much-needed break to schmooze with the adults in the house. I had a great time talking to Philip—but I also spent a lot of time watching his father.

I thought I would share a few things I learned from Philip’s father, as well as from other parents of kids with genetic diseases and other special needs. These may seem obvious, but I find these to be very helpful in my own day-to-day experiences:

1)      If you try hard enough, you can become a more patient person. Even though it was difficult for Philip to tell long stories, his father would allow him to go at his own pace instead of interjecting.This is definitely the hardest lesson for me to incorporate into my life!

2)      Try to focus on what is, not what is not. When I first saw Philip, I saw a man with difficulties and disabilities, but I noticed that his dad simply viewed him as a son. Maybe I need to change how I perceive things.

3)      Try to turn your difficult situations into something positive for others.  Philip’s dad runs a local fundraiser for FD awareness every year in the community and runs marathons to support finding cures this condition!  And many of the support organizations out there were founded by parents of affected children who felt the need to help other parents who were going through the same experience.

4) Remember to laugh sometimes. I can not count how many times Philip and his dad joked around and laughed about silly things. I sensed that they both try not to focus on the obvious medical issues, but to look at the positive and fun things about life.

Everyone copes with difficulties in different ways, and what I saw from Philip’s dad in that 1 hour does not necessarily reflect how he always behaves. Also, there is no one “right way” when it comes to dealing with individuals with special needs. But from that one 1 hour, I was inspired.

Here are some good resources if you or someone you know would like a place to turn to:

Chai Lifeline, offering a number of services for Jewish children with life threatening illness

Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium, an organization of many smaller, more disease-specific, groups

Ramah Special Needs Programs, providing a range of camping experiences for children with special needs

Yachad, The National Jewish Council for Disabilities, dedicated to addressing the needs of all Jewish individuals with disabilities and ensuring their inclusion in every aspect of Jewish life

The Friendship Circle,  a Jewish organization for children with special needs, with over 79 locations worldwide

“Far from the Tree”, a book by Andrew Solomon telling stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children, but also find profound meaning in doing so

Blogger’s note: I wrote this blog about 2 months ago, but never ended up posting it. Philip passed away last week, one week after his 27th birthday. Philip was an inspiration to me and our community.  May God comfort his family , together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Family Health Histories: We All Have Them

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Last Thanksgiving, Chani wrote a great blog post to remind people that family health history is one of the best tools that we have to assess genetic risks for our patients, and to encourage our readers to discuss this topic over the holidays. This Thanksgiving, I am thinking about this some more and I would like to add another element to this theme.

Recently, I have met with several families with mental health issues. Many of them are particularly worried about the stigma that this can have on the affected individual. But beyond that, I am finding that the siblings of those individuals are concerned about their “marriageability.” These siblings worry that they may not be desirable for fear of developing mental illness themselves and of passing on the mental health problem to the next generation.

It is important to note that all forms of mental illness are multifactorial. This means that there is some genetic component that can actually involve multiple genes, as well as some environmental or situational component to trigger its onset. This is why it is not surprising to see that mental illness will ‘run in a family,’ but that not everyone will be affected.  So if a brother has mental illness, each of his siblings and his nieces and nephews will have a higher-than-average risk to develop the same or a related condition, but this is not definite.

Dr. Goldwaser (one of our fantastic genetics attendings) once said something very smart and sensitive that also has been touched on in another blog from our program and at some of our events. We all have something in our families—whether it is mental illness, predisposition to cancer, or more common conditions like diabetes or hypertension. And some of us don’t even realize we have things going on. But the fact is that we are all carriers of about 5-10 autosomal recessive diseases! So while some things may be more public and seem more apparent than others, others are less conspicuous. But they are still there. Nobody is exempt.

I am finding that mental health issues are particularly taboo. People are so scared to talk about this, and even more so, to get involved with families who are affected. This is not unreasonable—we all know which life challenges we think we can handle and which ones we cannot. But I want to urge you this Thanksgiving not only to be open about health history, but to be sensitive to the fact that if you dig deep enough, you will be sure to find something genetic in just about any family. Why should mental health issues be more disqualifying in the realm of marriage compatibility than any other disease?

 

The “Other” Genetic Test

Fragile-X-infographic-400-square-300x300When people inquire about how many diseases are on our Ashkenazi panel, we tell them that we currently offer screening for 18 conditions that are distinctly Ashkenazi , plus another two that are common in all populations. I have already blogged about spinal muscular atrophy, the first of those “extras”.  Today I want to review why screening for the other one, fragile X syndrome, is more complex.

Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of mental retardation in boys. Affected individuals demonstrate varying degrees of intellectual and behavioral disability, sensory disorders, connective tissue problems, and physical features. About 1 in 250 women are carriers of fragile X syndrome.

When we offer fragile X screening in our clinic, we find that some patients decline. This is because fragile X carrier screening is not the same as screening for the other 19 autosomal recessive conditions. Why?

Firstly, fragile X syndrome is not recessive; it is X-linked. In the context of pre-conception screening for the next generation, only females are screened for fragile X syndrome.  If you are a carrier of an X- linked disease, you are at risk to have an affected child, regardless of your partner’s results.  Therefore, finding out that you a carrier of an X- linked disease may have a more significant impact than finding out you are a carrier of a recessive disease.

Secondly, fragile X carriers may have certain health issues. While we usually tell our patients that being a carrier has no impact on your health, this may not be true of fragile X carriers. Female premutation carriers have a 20-30% risk of developing “primary ovarian insufficiency.” This condition may lead to infertility and/or early menopause.  Male premutation carriers have a 30-40% risk for Fragile X Associated Tremor/Ataxia syndrome (FXTAS), which is often compared to Parkinson’s disease. Female fragile X carriers can develop FXTAS as well (~8% risk), however it is more common in males. So while carriers will not develop fragile X syndrome, they may at risk to develop other medical conditions. Some people want to learn more about their own health risks, while others come in to learn about their offspring only.

Finally, fragile X screening results may not be as simple as “carrier” or “non-carrier”.  I am not going to go into a detailed lesson about the fragile X mutation in this blog, but the take home message is that one may be identified as an “intermediate carrier,” which is basically a pre-carrier. This person is not a carrier, so her child will most likely not be affected with fragile X. But the mutation may change over time, causing generations down the line to become true carriers ( what we call “premutation carriers”). Some patients are confused as how to proceed with prenatal or preconception genetic testing when they learn they are intermediate carriers.

So you can see why fragile X screening is not so simple. Currently, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics only recommends screening women for fragile X if there is a family history of it or any other form of mental retardation, or if the patient asks for it. There is no doubt that getting screened may be helpful for family planning purposes, but it may come with a price tag of more information than you had initially wanted.

To learn more about fragile X syndrome, visit the National Fragile X Foundation. They have a fantastic infographic about fragile X (part of which is shown at the top of this blog).

Pink football players

iStock_000023716474XSmallI have been thinking about writing this blog for a week already, ever since National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in all of its pinkness, hit New York in full force.  On day t minus 1, I got my pink ribbon from a representative camped out in front of the Apple Store.  On October 1, I woke up to a local news reporter getting her mammogram on the air, in real time.  A few days later, when we passed a fence in Central Park that was decorated with pink balloons, we debated whether they were for breast cancer or to mark off a child’s birthday party area.  But, the push to write this blog came after watching a football game with my son on Sunday, when he became frustrated that the pink towels tucked into the players’ pants and their sneakers were conflicting with the pink penalty flags (the NFL since has reverted back to yellow for the color of their penalty flags).

I remember reading a poignant article in the New York Times magazine section earlier this year that touched on the pinkness, dubbed by author Peggy Orenstein as a component of the “feel good war on breast cancer” promoting awareness and screening.  She argued, in part, that this should not be serving as a surrogate for the “real war” to eradicate breast cancer–one that involves making a difference for patients whose lives are most at risk, on the levels of treatments, cures, and saved lives.

My angle here is slightly different.

In 2011 there were about 240,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed in women in the US. That’s 20,000 cases per month.  I am wondering what the scores of women who were diagnosed over the summer, or in September, feel when they see all of the pink emerge in October.  Do they think that the awareness campaigns may help other women (did it help them themselves)?  Or do they feel overwhelmed by these ubiquitous reminders of their current states?  Might they prefer that the outside world of shopping, TV, sports, the park etc. remains an escape from the reality of their current world that revolves around their diagnoses?

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for spreading awareness and literacy about genetic health, and I profess the “knowledge is power” mantra on a regular basis.  However, this month definitely raised a red flag in my mind, and gave me pause for thought about my own actions.  It’s one thing if I am talking the talk at an event centered on genetic health and its related issues.  But, in other settings, and particularly ones that are far removed from work and the work week, I really need to be more sensitized to the possibility of being in the presence of affected individuals and families, who may just want to be.

August is “SMA Awareness Month”

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In an attempt to express interest in my career, my husband likes to send me interesting links to news stories and videos that relate to genetics. He likes even more to send me links to his fantasy baseball players’ accomplishments. This week was his crowning achievement, as he sent me one that combined genetics and baseball. It was a video and article from ESPN.com about a 6 year old boy and his twin sister, both of whom have spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). The boy’s dream was to play for the Arizona Diamondbacks. The video is incredible and is a real tear-jerker!

If you or your partner has been pregnant in the past few years, you might have heard of SMA since your OB/GYN may have offered you genetic testing for this condition. SMA is an inherited disease of the motor nerves that causes muscle weakness and atrophy (wasting). Motor nerves arise from the spinal cord and control the muscles that are used for activities such as breathing, crawling, walking, head and neck control, and swallowing. So if the motor nerves are not working properly, these bodily functions are compromised.  In his book “Genetic Rounds,” pediatric geneticist Dr. Robert Marion (Einstein) describes SMA as “the childhood equivalent of the better-known, but also poorly understood, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease…” (pgs 85-86). SMA is a rare disorder occurring in approximately 8 out of every 100,000 live births, and is the leading cause of infant death. There are four types of SMA, which range from lethal in infancy to a less severe form that develops in adulthood.

Like other Ashkenazi Jewish diseases we have talked about on this blog, SMA is inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern. So if both parents in a couple are carriers of SMA, there is a 1 in 4 chance for them to have a child who is affected.

The reason many OB/GYNs order SMA testing is because in 2008, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics came out with a Practice Guideline that said: “Because SMA is present in all populations, carrier testing should be offered to all couples regardless of race or ethnicity.” Recent studies have shown that the carrier frequency is about 1 in 56 in the general population, and about 1 in 67 in the Ashkenazi Jewish population.

If you look at our current panel of diseases for screening our Ashkenazi patients, you will see that based on carrier frequency, SMA is actually more common than many of the other diseases on the panel. I would like to point out that even though it is more common, SMA does not fall under the category of “Ashkenazi Jewish genetic diseases.” This is because those conditions have known “founder mutations,” or genetic changes that are frequent in that specific population. SMA mutations are common in ALL populations, not just in Ashkenazi Jews. Since we often see patients who come for Ashkenazi testing before a pregnancy, we recommend that they also get screened for SMA at the same time. This is also true for the Sephardic and non-Jewish patients we see.

August is “SMA Awareness Month.” To learn more about SMA and the research initiatives to treat it, go online to the SMA Foundation website.  Personally, I am made aware of SMA every day since my neighbor is affected with type II SMA and I see her playing outside in her wheelchair all the time. But for those of you who do not know anyone who is affected, try to become aware that this condition exists. Make sure to get screened before a pregnancy or early into one, and spread the word to your child-bearing friends and family. You could really make the difference!

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