Featured Researcher Dr. Urszula IwaniecUrszula Iwaniec is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science. She began working at OSU in 2005. Previously, she was an assistant scientist at the University of Florida, College of Veterinary Medicine. Prior to that, she was a post doctoral fellow in the Department of Medicine at Creighton University. Dr. Iwaniec received her Ph.D. in anthropology in 1997 from the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

My Research

My research deals with bone health across the lifespan. Since my arrival at OSU in 2005, I have focused on three areas of interest; 1) the effects of alcohol on bone, 2) the effects of obesity and weight reduction on bone, and 3) prevention of breast cancer metastases to bone.

Alcohol is a good example of how a life-style factor can have detrimental or beneficial effects on the skeleton depending upon quantity consumed and stage of life at which consumption occurs. Alcohol abuse is detrimental to many organ systems, including the skeleton. Using an animal model, we have shown that the growing skeleton is especially sensitive to the detrimental effects of alcohol and that these negative effects, which include an impairment of bone healing, may persist long after alcohol consumption is moderated. Most investigators have focused on the toxic effects of very high levels of alcohol on bone cells. Our work has shown that much lower levels of alcohol actually influence the composition of bone matrix. We are now investigating the possibility that changes in bone matrix are the major mechanism by which alcohol abuse increases the risk for osteoporosis.

Alcohol is not all bad for bone. If fact, there is epidemiological evidence that post-menopausal women who drink moderately lose less bone with age than non-drinkers. Menopausal bone loss is due to accelerated but unbalanced (more bone is lost than replaced) turnover. Alcohol inhibits bone turnover. This is very undesirable for the growing skeleton, but may be beneficial in aging individuals. My research includes testing this idea.

Another of my research foci is assessment of the effect of obesity on the skeleton. The detrimental health effects of excess weight are well established but some weight control methods, such as severe dieting, result in bone loss and an increased risk for osteoporotic fractures. We are investigating how bone metabolism is coupled to overall energy metabolism to develop weight control approaches that are not detrimental to the skeleton. With my collaborator, Dr. S.P. Kalra at the University of Florida, I have been investigating the role of the fat cell-derived hormone leptin on bone metabolism. Leptin plays a role in appetite control and excessive weight gain appears to be, in part, due to impaired leptin function. Kalra has shown that increasing leptin levels in the brain via gene therapy can restore leptin function, cure obesity, reverse obesity-related diseases and greatly extend the lifespan of mice that cannot produce leptin. We have shown that these mice have skeletal abnormalities which can also be cured by leptin gene therapy. However, diet-induced obesity is much more common than obesity associated with leptin deficiency. Inactive mice and rats, like humans, tend to put on weight with age, an effect that is amplified by the typical high fat Western diet we consume. For this practical reason, we are investigating the effects of high and low fat diets as well as leptin gene therapy on the skeleton of normal mice and rats.

My final research focuses on reducting breast cancer metastasis to bone. Breast tumors metastasize to bone in 80% of patients with advanced disease and decrease quality of life by causing severe pain and fractures. We are investigating dietary and pharmacological approaches to make bone less hospitable to breast cancer cells. Using a mouse model, we have recently shown that a naturally produced derivative of the female hormone estrogen, called 2-methoxyestradiol, not only reduces metastasis of cancer cells but suppresses growth the primary tumor itself. Future research will focus on whether the natural production of this antitumor agent can be augmented by diet and whether it can actually prevent the development of cancer.

In addition to my research, I direct a laboratory which performs histomorphometric and micro-computed tomography (µCT) analysis of bone. Histomorphometry provides a quantitative assessment of bone cell number and activity whereas µCT provides a non-destructive method for 3-dimensional analysis of bone architecture. These capabilities have given me the opportunity to collaborate with researchers across the U.S. and in Europe and involve a wide variety of projects. One of the most unusual was evaluation of effects of weightlessness on bone in newts and geckos flown aboard a Russian spacecraft.