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September 28, 2001

The heart of a researcher

by Kevin Brown
D. Lee Alekel knew early in her undergraduate student days at Cornell University that science was her forte. She briefly considered a career as a physician, but soon realized she was much more "like a researcher at heart" and decided to pursue graduate school.

"Whatever I work on has to have a human component and be applicable to the human condition," said Alekel, assistant professor of nutrition in the department of food science and human nutrition.

"When I was a graduate student, there was relatively little known about how nutritional factors (except calcium) are related to bone," she said. "Researching how physiologic and nutrition factors affect human bone appealed to me because of my background in physiology and endocrinology and my previous work with exercise physiologists."

  D. Lee Alekel
D. Lee Alekel (right) is interested in preventing osteoporosis. Photo by Bob Elbert.
Much of her research focuses on dietary- and physical activity-related factors that may affect the physical health of mid-life women. She said she has a particular interest in preventing osteoporosis.

"I believe part of my scientific responsibility is to complement my research with studying women's overall disease risk and how to prevent disease," Alekel said.

Her major work at Iowa State involves physiologic effects of isoflavones from soy. Isoflavones are estrogen-like compounds that occur naturally in soy. Alekel studies menopausal women to examine how soy impacts the symptoms and side effects of menopause.

From 1996 to 1998, Alekel did six-month studies of 69 menopausal women who were not receiving hormone replacement therapy. The women were randomly assigned to one of three groups and given a control protein, an isoflavone-rich soy protein or an isoflavone-poor soy protein. The women kept diaries of their menopausal symptoms.

While this research did not show that isoflavone-rich soy relieved menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes or night sweats, it did show that the product reduced bone loss, critical in osteoporosis development. (Osteoporosis costs $10 billion a year in direct U.S. medical care).

Next, Alekel plans to study an isoflavone product in tablet form to determine if this treatment might replace hormone therapy (which may have side effects and may increase the risk of breast cancer) for women who cannot tolerate or will not use hormone therapy.

"Isoflavones given in tablet form may help maintain bone mass with relatively few side effects," Alekel said. "There have been no published studies on the effect of isoflavones from tablets on body composition or bone with long-term (three-year) use. If we could demonstrate even a modest beneficial effect of soy isoflavones on bone without the negative side effects we see with hormone therapy, this could be a huge achievement."

Alekel also has an interest in ethnic differences in bone density, body composition, dietary intake and disease risk. She compared a group of Indian and Pakistani pre-menopausal women with similar American women of European Caucasian decent for risk factors related to various disease outcomes.

"Women from the Indian subcontinent are at increased risk of osteoporosis in some respects, but not in others," Alekel said. "We also studied body composition and the risk of cardiovascular disease and breast cancer. These Indian and Pakistani women were at greater risk for cardiovascular disease but lower risk for breast cancer compared with their American counterparts."

This December, Alekel will meet with other bone researchers in Bombay, India, to discuss further research to determine bone density and osteoporotic risk among men and women from the Indian subcontinent.

"This area of research is seriously lacking, given that individuals from the Indian subcontinent are thought to be at very high risk for osteoporosis," Alekel said.

Alekel, in conjunction with researchers from other departments, also has studied the effects of training, nutrition education/counseling, strength and performance on the iron status and body composition of Iowa State's female swim team. Preliminary results from this study show that physical activity has a positive effect on bone density, thus reducing the risk of osteoporosis later in life.

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