DNA tests find unexpected link to Spanish Inquisition

July 1, 2007

Monty Python, the British comedy troupe, got it at least partially wrong. Contrary to the claim of their legendary skit involving Catholic cardinals, a matronly lady, and torture in a comfy chair, one can expect the Spanish Inquisition. An Albequerque oncologist has found evidence of Spain's infamous campaign to rid itself and its territories of heretics by testing Hispanic women in northern New Mexico for BRCA1/BRCA2 mutations.

Monty Python, the British comedy troupe, got it at least partially wrong. Contrary to the claim of their legendary skit involving Catholic cardinals, a matronly lady, and torture in a comfy chair, one can expect the Spanish Inquisition. An Albequerque oncologist has found evidence of Spain's infamous campaign to rid itself and its territories of heretics by testing Hispanic women in northern New Mexico for BRCA1/BRCA2 mutations.

Historical awareness certainly helped Dr. David Duncan. He was familiar with the work of former New Mexico state historian Stanley Hordes, Ph.D. Hordes identified hundreds of Hispanic Americans in New Mexico who were surprised to find that their ancestors were Sephardic Jews who had emigrated to the New World 400 hundred years ago to escape the Spanish Inquisition.

Hordes found that some of the families' customs still reflect long-forgotten Jewish roots. Their diets exclude pork. They follow a tradition of lighting candles on Friday nights. Even an arch above the altar in a Spanish colonial church in Albuquerque is decorated with Stars of David.

Duncan discovered genetic baggage that bridges the ages as well A survey of Spanish breast cancer patients, published in the British Journal of Cancer in 1999, linked mutations among Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are 10 times more common among Ashkenazi Jews, who trace their roots to Eastern Europe, than among the general population, he said.

Duncan made the connection to the New World from routine BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests of Hispanic women whose family members have frequently developed breast cancer. With the help of the test, he has thus far found that 11 Hispanic families have a Sephardic ancestry. They mainly reside in Bernalillo County, southwest of Santa Fe, the colonial and current state capital of New Mexico.

The women were prescribed an accelerated schedule of breast MRI screening and mammography for their heightened breast cancer risk. Duncan's findings were reported at the 2005 American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting.