Hearing loss is not an inevitable part of growing old, says Prof. Karen Avraham, a Tel Aviv University researcher working to identify the genetic basis of deafness. Avraham recently represented the European Union consortium EuroHear at the leading EU conference called "Hearing and Seeing: European Research to Fight Deafness and Blindness." "The goal of the conference was to bring researchers and clinicians who work with the deaf and blind together to discuss each other's strides," says the TAU geneticist, an immigrant from the US who chairs the department of human molecular genetics and biochemistry at TAU's Sackler Medical School. As a leading research partner for EuroHear, which comprises 25 European, Israeli and UK-based research teams, she is working to unravel the genetic mystery involved in hearing loss. Genomics, which is the name of this field, aims to investigate the biological mechanisms that can lead to the condition. Avraham and her Palestinian partner, Prof. Moien Kanaan, have helped identify 10 hearing-loss genes, and together they have become famous for a unique multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the high incidence of genetic deafness among Palestinian children. "Knowing a person's genetic predisposition can certainly help clinicians today and in the future, it can help to develop treatments and therapies. One day a cure may be within reach," she declares, stressing the importance of international academic collaboration. The conference was held at the College de France in Paris, and included hundreds of academic representatives as well as patient groups, who are playing an instrumental role in helping scientists understand the affliction. In Europe, the figures for hearing impairment are staggering, with over 10% of the population suffering some kind of hearing impairment, rising to 40% among those over 75. The costs of managing hearing loss are considerable in terms of physical, social and mental well-being, educational development and employment. Early identification and intervention are therefore extremely important. The Avraham lab has taken part in discovering key genes for deafness in the Israeli and Palestinian populations. Most recently, her group discovered a new type of hearing impairment in Israel called OTSC4, with onset in early adulthood. Other important gene discovery research she and her team conducted is now the basis of diagnostic tests. US ORTHODOX RABBIS PROHIBIT SMOKING Although most Israeli rabbis are reluctant to state that smoking is forbidden by Jewish law, the Halacha Committee of the modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has issued a unanimous opinion affirming that, in spite of its widespread practice even within many rabbinic and yeshiva circles, the smoking of tobacco products is forbidden to Jews. For some observers of Jewish life, this decision might be casually dismissed as a statement of the obvious. But from a different perspective, the RCA said, this ruling illustrates the highly significant fact that accepted practice and illustrious precedent notwithstanding, Jewish law is fully able to incorporate new realities, recognize new and reliable scientific findings, and embrace the need to change heretofore acceptable behavior. "The ruling comes in the wake of, and is based on, impeccable halachic sources attesting to the importance of safeguarding health and preserving life. It also benefits from a keen understanding of a massive volume of medical and scientific findings. And it posits that those rabbinic authorities who may have in decades past permitted the activity (or even engaged in it themselves), would in all likelihood have a changed opinion today," the RCA said in a statement. "The Torah is a Book of Life, both physical and spiritual," said committee chairman Rabbi Asher Bush. "And especially on the issue of smoking, the Torah itself must be seen as a living, growing and ever-expanding source of wisdom and life-giving energy, mandating the pursuit of good health and long life." The decision calls on all Jews, and certainly observant Jews, to make every effort to avoid smoking in the first place, and if already in the habit, to stop. The committee has been granted a mandate from the RCA to tackle some of the major issues confronting the Orthodox community in the US, including organ transplants and time of death. It will also address issues put to it by the Orthodox Union, in the RCA's invigorated role as halachic authority to the Orthodox Union.