Research carried out by veterinary scientists at the Royal Veterinary College reveals that deer antler regeneration may use stem cells and involves similar mechanisms to those used in limb development. The research could take us towards a 'holy grail' in human medicine: the ability to restore organs damaged through trauma, disease, cancer or excision.
Many lower animals such as newts can renew damaged parts of their bodies but antler growth is the only example of mammals being able to regrow large complex organs.
Deer antlers are large structures made of bone that annually grow, die, are shed and then regenerate. Although dead tissue when used for fighting, during growth they consist of living bone, cartilage blood vessels and fibrous tissue covered in skin.
The research suggests that unlike the regenerative process in the newt, antler growth does not involve reversal of the differentiated state but is stem cell based. Antler growth appears to involve specific stimulation of the necessary stem cells present in the locality. If we can understand how deer have adapted the normal means of development, cell renewal and repair to redevelop a complete organ, it may be possible to achieve the same outcome in damaged human tissues.
The research also shows that developmental signaling pathways are important. 'Antler-specific' molecules may not exist and growth may be a particular use of molecules that all mammals share. There is similarity in the signals used to stimulate antler growth and those used for other processes.