Dr. Ephrat Levy-Lahad
Shaare Zedek Medical Center
My very first research grant as a principal investigator was from the ICRF. In 1996, I returned to Jerusalem after a fellowship in Medical Genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle, to set up a Medical Genetics service (now an Institute) at Shaare Zedek Medical Center. As an internist-geneticist, I was particularly interested in genetics of adult disease, and one of the first clinics we created was the Cancer Genetics clinic. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, in whIich mutations cause inherited breast and ovarian cancer, were identified in 1994 and 1995, and around the time of my return it became clear that mutations in these genes are particularly common among Ashkenazi Jews. Studying these mutations in the Ashkenazi population was clearly important, both for our patients and to further research on these critical causes of the most common cancers in women.
The grant I received from the ICRF in 1997 and subsequent years, allowed me to establish a research lab, and begin studying the population genetics of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. We found that in Ashkenazi Jews ~ 10% of breast cancer cases and ~40% of ovarian cancer cases were explained by mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2. This led us both to look for interactions with other genes that might affect risks in carriers, and to look more closely at how these genes function in cancer.
It also led us to the realization that perhaps we should be identifying women who are mutation carriers before they become affected, to utilize genetics as a tool for prevention.
We performed large scale studies showing that about half of carriers do not have a family history of malignancy, yet are still at high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Such women can be identified only if we offer screening to the entire population, and we are now performing studies to determine how to implement such screening.
Recently, with the advent of new genetic technologies, comprehensive analysis of inherited breast and ovarian cancer susceptibility has become possible also in non-Ashkenazi Jews. With Dr. Mary-Claire King, Lasker Award winner and breast cancer genetics pioneer, we have just received an ICRF grant that will allow us to test thousands of women. This study will be the basis for universal approaches of using genetics for cancer prevention.
I still remember the day I opened the envelope from the ICRF (those were the days of snail mail…) and found out that for the first time as an independent reseIarcher, I would be receiving a research grant. If not for the first push from the ICRF, none of this would have ever happened.