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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 20:00 GMT
Insight into mystery of antlers
Deer shed their antlers in spring
Stem cells play a key role in the deer's remarkable ability to grow new antlers, according to research.

The deer is unique among mammals in being able to regenerate a complete body part - in this case a set of bone antlers covered in velvety skin.

Experts at the Royal Veterinary College hope the work could one day lead to new ways to repair damaged human tissues.

Details were outlined in an edition of the BBC TV programme Super Vets, which was screened on 12 January.

Professor Joanna Price of the Royal Veterinary College said: "The regeneration of antlers remains one of the mysteries of biology but we are moving some way to understanding the mechanisms involved.

"Antlers provide us with a unique natural model that can help us understand the basic process of regeneration although we are still a long way from being able to apply this work to humans."

Mating game

Antlers are large structures made from bone that annually grow, die, are shed and then regenerate.

They grow in three to four months, making them one of the fastest growing living tissues.

After the antlers have reached their maximum size, the bone hardens and the velvety outer covering of skin peels off.

Once the velvet is gone, only the bare bone remains - a formidable weapon for fighting.

At the end of the mating season, the deer sheds its antlers to conserve energy. Next spring, a new pair grows out of a bony protuberance of tissue at the front of the animal's head.

Hormone link

The research suggests that stem cells - the master cells of the body, with the ability to develop into many specialised cell types - underpin this process.

It is mediated by some sort of signalling pathway, probably regulated by hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone.

The long-term goal of the work is to better understand the chemical signalling pathway behind the process of regeneration, in the hope that it can be harnessed by human medicine to develop novel treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's.

"If we know why this animal can do it whereas other mammals can't, we can start to say: 'Can we make this signal come on again if we have an injured or severed (human) tissue?'" Professor Price told the BBC News website.

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