Encouraging Screening Before Pregnancy: My JScreen Story

12 Dec

JScreen’s creation involved multiple people in different circumstances, times, and places all experiencing some event or spark of intuition and creativity that grew into the will to do “something” to prevent Jewish genetic diseases.  “Something” grew into JScreen. For me, inspiration first struck when I was giving a talk to a group of other faculty members at Emory University in Atlanta about Jewish genetic screening in 2007.  The idea that we should use a combination of online education and saliva screening to make it easier for people to be screened struck me so suddenly, that I stopped my talk and just stood still for what was probably seconds, but felt like minutes. 

I had been wrestling with the dilemma of how best to encourage screening for years.  Trained as a genetic counselor, I had witnessed couple after couple bringing their infants into our clinic, only to be told that their child was suffering from a devastating condition.  The parents inevitably cried out “but no one in our family has this!”  They were right, of course, but that didn’t help their baby.  These types of diseases often come out of nowhere.  Sadly, many of these parents hadn’t been offered screening by their physicians, or if they had, the issue wasn’t raised until the pregnancy was well underway. As it stands today, genetic carrier screening is typically offered, if at all, when a couple is already pregnant.  This timing is understandable, because they may not show up in a clinic before conceiving.  Pregnancy, though, is not the optimal time for screening to be offered.

Professional groups, such as the American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology[1] and the American College of Medical Genetics[2], support the belief that preconception screening should be encouraged.  Studies bear out the reasons why.  Sparbel et al. published an article in 2009[3] eloquently describing the difficulties that prenatal screening raises for women who can’t help but view their options through the “prism” of their pregnancies.  Prior to conception, a couple who discovers that their children are at risk for a genetic disease can carefully review their reproductive options, which can range from using an egg or a sperm donor to adoption to preparing for the possibility of having an affected child by marshalling resources for early treatment.  Outside of the pressures of pregnancy, couples can take their time to learn about the condition, talk with parents of children who are affected, and make the best decisions for themselves.  Many of the ethical concerns surrounding carrier screening evaporate outside of the context of pregnancy.

To be clear, I do not mean to imply that prenatal screening is not helpful.  Many couples find the information they learn from prenatal diagnosis to be invaluable for providing peace of mind, deciding whether to continue a pregnancy, or planning for the birth of an affected child.  For example, a couple who learns that their child will have a condition might decide to move closer to relatives who can help with the care of a child with special health care needs.  Prenatal diagnosis is an important tool.   If the goal, though, is to prevent disease, many options are simply not available by the time prenatal screening is being considered.

Also, while newborn screening programs exist to identify children with some genetic conditions, only a few conditions are included, leaving parents in the dark about their child’s need for early intervention.  While newborn screening is designed to find babies before they become sick and begin treatment early, affected babies are still sometimes identified too late. Knowing that a baby is at risk or is affected early can be lifesaving in these situations.

As a Southerner, perhaps I feel the painful preconception/prenatal screening dilemma more acutely than do some of my colleagues.  Interest in prenatal testing is considerably lower where I practice in Georgia due to the politically conservative or religious values that are prevalent.  I feel a grave sense of urgency to figure out a way for screening to become common place BEFORE pregnancy.  I know that if we don’t find a way to make this a reality, screening won’t be an option for many of the people I work with, and they and their children will continue to suffer from preventable conditions.

So, why doesn’t preconception screening readily occur?  One reason is that ordering the testing is logistically difficult in many cases.  One of my past roles at Emory was to work with the Newborn Screening (NBS) Program, as their genetic counselor.  As such, I received calls from parents and other relatives of babies diagnosed through NBS wanting to arrange for carrier screening.  They had seen firsthand the impact of a condition on their family, and wanted to learn if their children would be at risk.    Few of these people who contacted me lived anywhere near a genetic counselor.  In one case, the uncle of a child diagnosed through NBS wanted screening, but he lived in rural Colorado.  I spent upwards of 5 hours on the phone with his physician’s office helping them identify the best place to send a sample, determine how much it would cost, and explain the results when they were finally available. In another case, a woman whose daughter was found to be a carrier of cystic fibrosis through NBS didn’t have a physician who could order the screen at all.  As a result, she was never able to have screening.  I couldn’t help but believe that it just shouldn’t be this hard!  For these reasons, when the idea for JScreen struck me, I couldn’t help but answer the call.

JScreen is a public health initiative whose goal is to overcome many of the barriers to preconception screening by taking advantage of the fact that we can now test saliva.   By combining online education with access to certified genetic counselors, our program aims to make screening easily accessible, affordable, and on a very pragmatic level useful in a way that prenatal screening just can’t be.

JScreen opened its virtual doors in September of this year.  It would be simplistic to believe that this program is the singular answer to preventing Jewish genetic diseases; people smarter than I have wrestled with this problem for decades.  The barriers to screening are complex, and will continue to be so.   I do believe, though, that JScreen is a step in the right direction; we are a piece of the puzzle that can ultimately lead to widespread preconception screening.  It’s an audacious goal.  For now, though, I can’t help but smile when a JScreen test is requested by someone who has checked the box “non-pregnant.”  I can’t help but pray for many, many more.

T_Page_2012_crop

 Tricia Page is the Senior Director for the JScreen program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  After receiving her B.S.  in Genetics from the University of Georgia, she received her Master’s degree in Genetic Counseling from the University  of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in 1996 and h er certification from the American Board of Medical Genetics  in 1999. At Emory, Tricia worked as the Director of Genetic Counseling Services, Program Manager for Newborn  Screening, and the Assistant Director of the Genomics and Public Health Program prior to taking her current roles.  In  her current position, Tricia focuses on delivery of genetic services from both a clinical and public health perspective.  She is interested in non-traditional service delivery models, especially those capitalizing on advances in genetic testing and health education.  Tricia is a fourth generation Georgian who enjoys spending time with her family, gardening, and training for triathlons.

1. Genetics ACo: ACOG Committee Opinion No. 442: Preconception and prenatal carrier screening for genetic diseases in individuals of Eastern European Jewish descent.Obstetrics and Gynecology 2009, 114(4):950-953.

2. Grody WW, Cutting GR, Klinger KW, Richards CS, Watson MS, Desnick RJ: Laboratory standards and guidelines for population-based cystic fibrosis carrier screening. Genet Med 2001, 3(2):149-154.

3. Sparbel KJH, Williams JK: Pregnancy as Foreground in Cystic Fibrosis Carrier Testing Decisions in Primary Care. GENETIC TESTING AND MOLECULAR BIOMARKERS 2009, 13(1):133-142.

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