Denise Ney: Research helping real people

By Julia Richards

Denise Ney has seen her research impact real people’s lives. Because of Ney’s work as director of the dietetics program at UW-Madison, patients with the rare genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) now have tastier options to meet their extremely limiting dietary needs. Soon Ney’s research may be able to help a new population—postmenopausal women who need to lose weight.

It all comes down to a special protein called glycomacropeptide (GMP), which not only has “very interesting biological properties,” according to Ney, it’s also the “only known dietary protein that doesn’t have phenylalanine,” which is what makes it ideal for patients with PKU.

During her research Ney noticed that GMP seemed to reduce body fat and build bone in the control group of mice. Now Ney and her collaborators have prepared a pilot study to see if it can do the same in humans, specifically overweight postmenopausal women with metabolic syndrome—a constellation of problems that may include high cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood fats. Protecting bone health in this population is key because when the women lose weight, they often also lose bone density, explains Karen Hansen, one of Ney’s collaborators and a UW rheumatologist who treats patients with osteoporosis.

Wisconsin happens to have an abundance of this unique protein, which is extracted from whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking. “This is capitalizing on a byproduct that normally would just be tossed out and making it into something useful,” Hansen says. As a supplement, GMP can be processed into a shake.

The researchers are still trying to figure out what it is about GMP that creates its beneficial effects and hope to do further studies. “The whole mechanism behind why the GMP supplement might promote bone health is still a story to be unraveled,” Hansen says. One theory is that it acts as a prebiotic—unusual for a protein—nourishing healthy gut bacteria and reducing inflammation.

Beyond her professional work, Ney’s enthusiasm extends to many personal achievements, particularly coauthoring a book telling her mother’s immigration story from Germany during World War II. Find more information on the book

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