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Decoding the Genetics of Stress

Making Genetics Central to All Healthcare

In the not-so-distant past, a typical doctor’s visit for many of us might have focused on problematic symptoms or an ongoing physical health issue. We didn’t expect to discuss social stressors like demanding jobs, family obligations, financial hardships, or the recent death of a loved one.

But that’s all changing. Up to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are now related to stress-related ailments and complaints.1 What’s more, the relationship between chronic stress and a variety of diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and anxiety disorders, has been well established.

Now think of that typical doctor’s visit – this time in the not-so-distant future. It begins with a conversation based on the well-known fact that health is a reflection of our genes, our lifestyles, and our experiences. What has changed is that your doctor has your individual genetic profile readily available.  And, even more importantly, doctors can read your profile to identify your risk of developing a wide variety of diseases. They can then use your genetic profile to keep you healthy despite the risks and, if you eventually develop symptoms, pursue a successful treatment plan tailored according to your genetics.

The Decoding Stress Study – Identifying the Genetic Risk of Stress on the Body

This future vision of health care is what Drs. Lisa Stubbs and David Galas had in mind when they launched the Decoding Stress Study. Their goal?  To pinpoint the exact genes, gene networks, and patterns of mutations in our brains responsible for how our bodies respond to chronic stress and identify how our unique genetic makeup contributes to the risk of developing stress-related diseases.

“We’ve known for a long time that when we’re chronically stressed, our brain begins to delegate the burden of stress to different systems in our bodies. But, that delegation is different for each person,” PNRI geneticist Dr. Lisa Stubbs says. “For some people, stress may affect their metabolism. For others, it impacts their heart or the immune system. And for some people, their genes actually protect them from the risk of the negative effects of chronic stress.”

Because we’re all genetically different, doctors currently can’t predict how each person’s body will handle that stress. By uncovering how genes govern the brain’s response to chronic stress – and how that response can alter things like a person’s metabolism, mood, and cardiovascular health – Drs. Stubbs and Galas envision doctors drawing on a patient’s specific genetic information to minimize the adverse impact of chronic stress.

Collaborating with Primary Care Clinics and Volunteer Patients

The Stubbs and Galas labs are currently collaborating with a clinic in Louisiana to collect blood samples from hundreds of people with and without stress-related disorders. The samples are analyzed at a laboratory at the University of Washington, and each participant’s unique pattern of genes will be mapped.

Comparing the results in each group will help identify the genetic patterns associated with a higher risk for developing a stress-related disorder.  The insights gained will then be used to design a more extensive study with thousands of patients across the U.S., providing greater insight into specific genetic patterns that are associated with either a person’s susceptibility or their resilience to stress.

“Stress, and its negative impact on our health, is so much a part of our lives these days,” Dr. Stubbs says. “This is a major public health crisis that many of us in medical research are working hard to address. Recent advances in genetics, genomics, and in the field of computational biology have made a study like ours possible.”

Scaling Up with Genetic Databases

Dr. David Galas, an internationally renowned expert in computational biology, is teaming up with Dr. Stubbs to cross-reference the findings in the Decoding Stress Study with publicly available, large-scale biomedical databases containing in-depth genetic and health information from hundreds of thousands of people.

“These international genetic databases are a treasure trove of information that can be hugely helpful to us in learning how our genes function,” says Dr. Galas. “With the new mathematical methods we’ve developed, we can now mine the information from these databases to identify genetic commonalities between individuals who are especially susceptible to stress.”

Decoding Stress – A Hopeful Future of Primary Care

Pilot studies like the Decoding Stress Study provide the biomedical basis for future treatments and interventions that address a patient’s specific genetic makeup. Without this ground-breaking research, doctors will be left relying on one-size-fits-all treatments for stress-related diseases, which may or may not work.

“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,” Dr. Galas says. “We want to make a major turn 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,” he says. “The answers really do lie in our genes.”

Learn more about the Decoding Stress Study and how you can advance this critical work.


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