Stem cells drive deer antler regeneration

    A perspective article on growing deer antler stem cell research requested by Science explains the latest developments on this structure that grows faster than cancer, but under control, and its many potential applications to medicine

    Understanding the biology of organs and tissues that can regenerate could be a great source of potential applications in medicine.. Although there are cases of regeneration of legs or body parts in several species, among the closest to us, mammals, there is only one case: the antler of the deer. It is a complete morphological, structural, and functional regeneration every year (unlike the compensatory regeneration of, for example, the liver). Antlers are also probably the fastest growing tissue in existence: they can grow up to 2,75 cm per day, regenerating a weight of up to 15 kg and 120 cm in about 3 months, which means, among other things, creating more than 20 cm2 of skin per day.

    To put recent findings published in the same issue of the journal into context Science, and show the potential medical applications of the set of studies on deer antlersthis journal requested a review and analysis from researchers Dr. Datao Wang from the Institute of Special Economic Animals and Plants (ISEAP, Changchun, China) and Dr. Tomás Landete Castillejos, from the Research Group in Animal Science Applied to Wildlife Management of the Instituto de Investigación en Recursos Cinegéticos (IREC – CSIC, UCLM, JCCM) and the Instituto de Desarrollo Regional (IDR-UCLM).

    The recently published findings show that a group from the ISEAP have just identified a particular population of antler blastema progenitor stem cells (ABPC) that are responsible for the regenerative cycle of the antlers. The blastema is a population of undifferentiated cells that arises after the loss of a limb or structure and drives regeneration. In the antler, which grows from the tips, the results demonstrated the existence of a blastema-like structure with cells expressing a protein (PRRX1+) like that expressed by the blastema cells that produce complete regeneration of amphibian limbs. The origin is different, as in amphibians the stem cells are produced from differentiated cells, whereas in antlers they come from other stem cells. The ABPCs of the antler are also different from those that produce partial regeneration of appendages in mammals. A first application to medicine is that findings in antler regeneration may help to overcome the limited regeneration of human cells.


    Growing antlers of red deer (Cervus elaphus) showing the regeneration-driven region (tip) rich in stem cells that produce a growth faster than cancer (Photo: Tomás Landete).

    A second anti aging application comes from studies conducted partly by the same group in China. Antler stem cells (ASCs, which appear to be derived from ABPCs at a more advanced stage of antler growth), show a much higher proliferation capacity than human bone marrow stem cells (hBMSC). Moreover, exosomes secreted by ASCs promote and maintain the proliferation of senescent hBMSCs, while control hBMSCs halted their growth.

    Deer stem cells could not be used in a possible anti-aging therapy because of the immune reaction, but the contents of the exosomes, which are cell organelles, could be used (or a medicine developed from them). To complete this anti-ageing and regenerative application of stem cells from deer antler (which is bone), transplantation of ABPCs into rabbits with defects in the femoral condyle generated more new cartilage and bone than control stem cells.

    The third application comes from studies, among others, by the IREC and IDR Animal Science group. Despite their fast growth, antlers prevent cancerous growth. This rapid growth is driven by the high expression of proto-oncogenes (similar to cancer oncogenes), which in turn has led to the evolution of tumour suppressor genes. This explains why the water-soluble antler extract has shown anti-cancer effects when applied to human tumours. The IREC Animal Science group has demonstrated them in glioblastoma cell cultures (reducing cell proliferation or colony-forming capacity and promoting apoptosis), while Asian groups have demonstrated them in xenograft mice with prostate cancer (reducing tumour volume). This is why, taking into account the variety of growing antler tissues (skin, cartilage, bone, blood vessels and nerves), the authors suggest in the paper that the anti-cancer effect of deer antler could be universal.


    The authors of the study, Dr. Datao Wang (right) and Dr. Tomás Landete (left), in the Animal Science laboratory of the IREC and the IDR in Albacete.

    Therefore, the authors of this review article and future perspective point out that research and its medical applications should focus on how such rapid growth rates are achieved, whether this sustained proliferation can delay ageing or combat senescence in tissue repair, and what are the mechanisms to achieve anti-tumour effects in antlers.

    The scientific publication of this research is available at: