Chronic stress is linked to several conditions such as anxiety, depression, type 2 diabetes (T2D), and heart disease. PNRI’s Decoding Stress Study aims to identify connections between human genes and stress response. Key to this study is not only assessing a person’s likelihood of developing a particular disease, but also examining the genes of people who appear less susceptible to stress-related conditions. 

The Stubbs and Galas Labs at PNRI came together in 2021 to collaborate on the Decoding Stress Study, each contributing invaluable expertise. Dr. Lisa Stubbs is a world-renowned neuroscientist, and Dr. David Galas had an illustrious career applying novel computational approaches to improve the human condition. 

After Dr. Galas passed away in May 2023, his leadership and pioneering research remains a guide for the future work. The Stubbs Lab will continue this project applying computational biology and the study of gene regulation to decipher what role our genes play in protecting us from disease when under stress.

Staff Scientist Dr. Eugene Lin is working closely with Dr. Stubbs, examining genes associated with T2D as an entry point of study in larger genetic databases. The next step is for the Stubbs Lab members to carry out experiments to test the genes and figure out how they influence a person’s likelihood of developing disease.

T2D is the most common health outcome related to stress, and is linked to disorders such as anxiety and depression. Therefore, genetic markers associated with T2D are extremely useful to researchers like Drs. Stubbs and Lin. 

“It’s hard to get stress isolated as a cause in human patients,” says Dr. Stubbs. “But, for example, T2D and Alzheimer’s are tightly associated, and animal studies clearly link T2D and stress. [Dr. Lin] found genes associated with both diseases in his analysis of potential modifiers for T2D genes.” Dr. Stubbs says these connections suggest that T2D and Alzheimer’s might appear together for some people, and a link to stress is possible.

Researchers are now analyzing blood samples collected from over 200 patients at the Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, most of whom are living with chronic stress. They expect to soon have the data they need to help design an even larger study on this topic. More data and broader-ranging research will help us better understand how our genes influence our vulnerability to the effects of chronic stress.

The Decoding Stress Study is fueled by a core ambition to create a healthier future—even in a world awash in stress. Dr. Galas shared his vision for this work, saying “Today, doctors have to wait until their patients start presenting with symptoms, often years after the stress has already damaged their physical and mental health. We want to make a major step toward providing truly precision medicine, making sure that we know who is at risk and, if necessary, making sure that the interventions are right for each patient.”