By Sarah Ben-Nun
On Thursday, February 28th, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Yeshiva University students flocked to Yagoda Commons for their pre-registered genetic screening kits. The testing and screening process was run by JScreen, a non-profit community-based public health initiative.
The focus was on a student demographic, in order to raise awareness of an issue that Yeshiva University students wouldn’t otherwise have. “We need to create that awareness so this genetic screening is on people’s radar,” explained Hillary Kenner, the National Outreach Director for the organization.
Talia Kupferman, co-president of the Genetics Club, said the room was filled with excitement. She noticed that once people submitted their samples, “They would take a breath… All they needed to do was… spit. You’re really preparing for your family’s future. It’s so important.”
The last time a screening event was held at YU was on February 14th, 2016. “[When] we were here a few years ago, [we] ran the largest screening in the history of screenings – 1200 students in three days; incredible,” said Kenner. “They’ve been wanting us to come back, and now made sense because a lot of those students [who’d attended the last screening] graduated.”
Naama Schwartz, SCW ’21, said, “It was something I wanted to do. I was just waiting to do it.” Waiting for what? The opportunity, the cost-effectiveness, and the ease of access. Kupferman stated, “The original price of JScreen is $149 for a kit, which is already subsidized and a really, really good price, but we wanted to get it down, because we knew the lower it was, the more people would want to do the test.” YU students ending up screening for $36 a saliva kit.
In outlining her journey with JScreen, Kenner said, “I started with JScreen… in 2013. I was always really into health, public health, so this was the perfect fit with my medical background and business degree.” She explained that the best option for students is to get screened before they get pregnant, because, in her experience, it becomes less of a consideration and an option, later on.
She further detailed the usual JScreen process, explaining, “For on site events [like the one at YU], we screen people on the ground, but our typical model is online. Anyone, 24/7, who’s 18-45 years old, can go to our website, request a kit, and we’ll mail it straight to their home.” Inside the kit is a small tube that holds saliva. Once that’s capped, it is sent back to a lab, where the specimen is analyzed and tested for diseases. Within four weeks, the genetics team at Emory University (which is where JScreen is headquartered) will make contact to discuss the results and the next steps.
According to their website, the JScreen team consists of fourteen members, with ranging positions. “There’s the outreach side and the more medical side,” Kenner said. “There are the genetic counselors [the ones who give] the results when they’re ready. They look at people’s files when they provide their information to scan for family history of diseases and to answer any questions. If someone doesn’t realize they have a different ancestry than what they thought, we help sort that all out.”
Kenner explains that the push for JScreen’s foundation was from a Jewish family in Atlanta. The couple had gotten tested before pregnancy, but not with a full screening. Their second daughter, Eden, had ML4, a neurodegenerative disease common among Jews. Kenner elaborates, “They were the ones who came to Emory University and a local philanthropist, and said ‘we need to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.’”
This is only one example of a family that influenced the organization. “I can’t tell you how many times I have parents come up to me, saying, ‘We got screened for Tay-Sachs, so my kids don’t need to get screened,’” Kenner said. “Back in the 70’s and 80’s the only disease that was being screened for was Tay-Sachs, and now we’re screening for over 200. There’s Ashkenazi, Sefaradi, and Mizrachi diseases, so everyone needs to be getting screened.”
Knowledge is power, and awareness is key. Exposure to the basic health factors of family planning, especially for students, is vital. “[Some] people do it after, or outside of college, but many don’t,” Kupferman said. “I think that’s because it’s not at the forefront of their minds when they’re dating or deciding to get married.”
Shayna Doretsky, SCW ’20, expressed, “I figured my genetics aren’t going to change, and it was easy to do it now, so I’m doing it now.” Schwartz similarly stated, “I knew it was going to be important. I knew I had to be proactive.”