The Jewish Genetic Diseases Center of Greater Phoenix has changed its name to the Minkoff Center for Jewish Genetics, while simultaneously introducing a new BRCA screening program for Arizona Jews to better understand potential hereditary cancer risks.  

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are designed to suppress tumors by maintaining cellular growth. A mutation in either gene can lead to a higher risk for cancers such as breast, ovarian, prostate, pancreatic and more. According to the Minkoff Center for Jewish Genetics, one in 40 Ashkenazi Jews — men and women — carry a BRCA gene mutation. Ashkenazi Jews also are susceptible to conditions such as Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, Canavan disease and other genetic illnesses.

“Women and men with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry carry the BRCA genetic mutations at a rate 10 times that of the general population,” said Dr. Seymour Rife, vice president of the Minkoff Center’s board of directors. “This has serious implications about the chances of developing breast cancer and some other cancers at some time in their lives.” 

The Minkoff Center for Jewish Genetics, named after the late Dr. Sherman Minkoff, founder of the Jewish Genetic Diseases Center of Greater Phoenix (JGDC), also offers prenatal testing for recessive genetic mutations, as well as education and counseling. The change in the organization’s name is due in part to the expanding scope of the organization’s mission. 

“The name change was contemplated over the last several years,” said Wendy Carriere, executive director of the Minkoff Center. “We didn’t know the exact name we wanted to use, but we knew that we wanted to take out the word ‘diseases’ since we are more focused on prevention and generational health. We also wanted to take out ‘Greater Phoenix’ since we now offer services throughout the whole state of Arizona.”

Katherine Hunt-Brendish, BRCA program director at the Minkoff Center, said Minkoff “wanted us to consider a program to make this test accessible, as well as to educate the Ashkenazi Jewish people more about the risk factors that are there.” 

Thanks to the advent of new technology, the BRCA testing has become affordable and more accessible, fulfilling Minkoff’s dream. Minkoff died last March.

“To date, widespread testing for the BRCA genes is only being performed on those who have a personal or family history of one of these genetic cancers,” Rife said. “Adding BRCA screening of the general Jewish population to our center’s program will provide an invaluable service to our community, furthering our vision of a Jewish community free of genetic diseases.”

In population genetics, the “founder effect” refers to the loss of genetic variation that occurs when a new population is established from a small group of individuals, such as the Ashkenazi. The “founder effect” can lead to a “founder mutation,” which means that mutations are more prevalent in those specific populations. As a result, Ashkenazi are significantly more susceptible to hereditary cancers and other genetic diseases.

For Ashkenazi women, this has manifested into an increased risk of carrying a BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation, which could lead to the development of breast and/or ovarian cancer. 

According to the Minkoff Center, all women have a 12 percent chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetimes. But for women who have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 abnormality, the risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetimes is approximately between 40 percent and 85 percent. This is about three to seven times greater than that of a woman who does not have the mutation.

The lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is significantly elevated as well, with an increased rate of 16 percent to 44 percent versus the just under 2 percent for the general population.

The risk for male breast cancer and prostate cancer in Ashkenazi men also increases if they have a BRCA mutation.

“We have held BRCA educational programs over the years, but this is the first time we have offered screening and counseling through our organization,” Carriere said. “It’s not common for a BRCA test to be ordered even if your physician knows you have Ashkenazi ancestry.” 

BRCA screening programs will be held twice a year. The Minkoff Center offers recessive gene testing year-round. 

Hunt-Brendish explained that the difference between BRCA testing and “the carrier screenings we provide is that those are meant to detect recessive mutations like Tay-Sachs, which require two mutations to be activated in an individual. The BRCA program detects for dominantly inherited mutations, so someone would only need one mutation for a cancer to express itself.”

Carriere added that for BRCA mutation carriers, there are established medical guidelines for increased surveillance to help diagnose cancer at its earliest and most treatable stage, as well as procedure recommendations to decrease the risk of developing these cancers and providing medicines that can help prevent cancer. 

She also said that because the center is aware of the increased probability of the Ashkenazi population having the mutation, “we will be proactively testing the population that won’t get tested in the normal course of medical treatment. It can and will save lives to have knowledge of their BRCA status.”

Carriere said the screening events are designed to be educational sessions led by genetic counselors trained in cancer genetics. If an individual attending the screening has a BRCA mutation the center also will work to test that individual’s entire family to hopefully lead to early detection. 

The center will define success by the number of tests completed, the number of participants serviced by its volunteer medical resources and the number of participants who attend their in-person educational events, Carriere said.  

The first BRCA screening event will take place on May 19 at the Ina Levine JCC in Scottsdale. Registration for the May screening will open in March. 

Besides marking its greater mission, the center’s name change also honors Minkoff and his family.

 “Ultimately, with the loss of our co-founder, Sherman Minkoff, coinciding with the center’s decision to formally develop the BRCA screening program we had been researching for some time, we felt it was fitting to permanently recognize the Minkoffs’ past, present and future legacy as the center enters this exciting new phase of service to the Jewish community in Arizona,” said Minkoff Center Board President Carol Abrams. 

Originally born in Chicago, Minkoff came to Phoenix in the 1960s, and established himself as a cardiologist. He became very involved in the Phoenix Jewish community, serving as a board member for Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, as well as chairing many of its committees. 

In 2000, Minkoff and his wife, Andi, founded the Jewish Genetic Diseases Project, which later became JGDC. He served as president of the JGDC in order to help educate the Jewish community on potential genetic diseases based on their ethnic group. When the Minkoffs started their project, they could only identify four genetic diseases. Now, the center can identify more than 100 different diseases.

Carriere said it was the appropriate time to change the center’s name and “we couldn’t think of a more beautiful way to secure the Minkoff legacy and their commitment to a healthy, thriving Jewish community.” JN

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