Leah Fitzgerald, Ph.D.
PNI Research Fellow
e-mail address:

Brief Biography
Leah FitzGerald brings 21 years of nursing experience to her post-doctoral training. She received her doctorate in Nursing from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2003. Leah completed her Bachelors and Masters in Nursing at Boston College. Upon completing her Masters in 1993, she began practice as a Nurse Practitioner in Santa

Monica and then moved to UCLA’s Department of Medicine, Division of Digestive Diseases from 1995 – 2003.

Her doctoral dissertation work focused on central and peripheral stress mediators in women with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. In addition, along with Dr. Bruce Naliboff, she received a pilot grant from the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology to examine central and peripheral cytokines in these same dissertation research subjects. Her post-doctoral work continues to utilize same conceptual diathesis stress model.

Topic: Depression and IL-6 in Epithelial Ovarian Cancer: Genetic Diathesis and Psychological Stress
Brief Description of Research Project
My postdoctoral research will examine the role of individual genetic characteristics in the interactions between the neuroendocrine system and IL-6 levels in both healthy people and women suffering from ovarian cancer.
I plan to examine the genetic control of IL-6 production in an effort to understand the marked individual differences in IL-6 levels across individuals. IL-6 levels appear to be related to depression in patients with cardiovascular disease, and they are drastically altered in patients with ovarian carcinomas, but the relationship between IL-6 and depression is not well understood in the context of cancer. I will approach this topic from a traditional "diathesis-stress" model that treats heritable polymorphisms in the IL-6 promoter as an individual-level risk factor that may then interact with exogenous psychological events (stress, depression) and their manifestations in the HPA axis and autonomic nervous system to regulate IL-6 gene transcription. This study will also explore the role of adiposity, which may underlie the relationship between depression, IL-6 gene transcription and ovarian cancer. This approach provides an opportunity to integrate psychological, physiological processes and gene expression dynamics to understand the basis for the IL-6 "super-producer" phenotype that has recently been established as a risk factor for several forms of cancer.

Demonstration of specific genotypes in patients with ovarian cancer, and especially a positive relationship between genetic control of IL-6, depression and HPA axis will provide strong evidence for the presence of genetic propensity and altered stress and stress related immune changes in this disorder. The results will generate specific hypotheses regarding the stress-HPA-immune interactions which need to be investigated in more experimental studies This study is a direct extension of previous work done by Dr. FitzGerald, and co-mentors Dr. Martínez-Maza whose ongoing research examines the role of cytokine production and responsiveness in human disease and Dr. Steve Cole whose background is in autonomic physiology and regulation of gene expression by the neuroendocrine system.