Antlers could cure millions of people fighting debilitating bone diseases such as osteoporosis.
Two genes in deer that allow them to regrow their antlers each year could be used to treat human bone conditions, the researchers hope.
Stanford University scientists discovered that these genes help to form new bone cells and harden existing bone tissue.
The Duchess of Cornwall (pictured with her deceased mother, honorable Rosalind Shand in 1965) has spoken of her mother's "slow and agonizing" death from osteoporosis. In 2011, the Duchess said she lost eight inches in height and was too bent to eat
Swedish singer and actress Britt Ekland, best known for playing a Bond girl in "The Man with the Golden Weapon," claims that a diet-related obsession led to her being diagnosed 53 years old
"Our ultimate goal is to figure out how to apply the same underlying biology that allows for rapid bone regeneration in antlers to help treat human bone conditions such as osteoporosis," said lead author, Professor Peter Yang.
Researchers collected samples of early antler tissue, mainly skeletal stem cells from a deer farm in California.
Male deer sprout new antlers quickly every spring as external bones, which they then throw over the winter.
In early development, antlers are soft as the cartilage of a human nose.
Only in the second phase of development, the antlers mineralized and rigid.
When comparing stem cells in antler with human bone marrow, the researchers found genes that seem to be currently expressed in antlers.
Two genes in particular have been found to drive the unusually rapid growth rate of antlers, which increases an amazing 2 cm per day in the summer.
The first gene – uhrfl – supports the division of bone cells, the second – s100a10 – is responsible for the hardening of bone tissue.
When the researchers expressed these two genes in mice, they saw an increase in cell proliferation and bone density.
Antler can cure bone diseases such as osteoporosis, suggests the research (stock)
In 2002, the late comedian and talk show presenter Joan River was diagnosed with osteoporosis at the age of 68. She lived with this condition for more than a decade before she died of heart failure at the age of 81
The study was published in the Journal of Stem Cell Research and Therapy.
Although still at an early stage, the researchers hope that the results may lead to more efficient and effective treatments for bone disease and bone fractures in humans.
In healthy bones, one cell type produces new bone tissue, while another builds on the old bone to maintain a balanced bone structure.
In osteoporosis, the cells that break down the bone overtake those that form it.
"We have two priorities," said Professor Yang.
"Understand the genetic regulation of deer antler growth and find out if we can use this information to build up therapeutics to potentially prevent or treat bone disorders such as osteoporosis or to repair fractures faster.
WHAT IS OSTEOPOROSIS?
Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens the bones, makes them fragile and more likely to break.
More than three million people in the UK and up to 44 million people in the US.
The condition develops slowly and is often diagnosed only when a slight fall causes a fracture.
The most common injuries in osteoporosis are:
- wrist fractures
- Hip fractures
- Fractures of the spinal cord
Sometimes coughing or sneezing is enough to cause a rib fracture or partial collapse of one of the bones in the spine.
Osteoporosis is usually painful only when a fracture occurs.
Some elderly patients develop a stooped posture when their broken spinal bones can not support their weight.
The condition occurs when the bone is lost faster than it can be replaced.
It is more common in women, especially after menopause due to the loss of protective hormones.
The following increases the risk:
- Long-term use of oral steroids
- Other diseases, such as inflammatory diseases
- Family history of the disease
- Low BMI
- Strong drinking and smoking
The treatment focuses on the prevention of fractures and the use of medications to strengthen bones.
Regular exercise, good food and taking vitamin D supplements can prevent the disease.
In some people, osteopenia can be diagnosed when bone density is reduced, but not enough to be classified as osteoporosis.
Source: NHS Choices
"Knowledge of the genetics behind antler regeneration, rapid bone growth and mineralization is fundamental to our ultimate therapeutic goal and critical to understanding rapid bone regeneration in other species, such as humans.
"We are just beginning this research, but our ultimate goal is to figure out how to apply the same underlying biology that allows rapid bone regeneration in antler to help treat human bone conditions such as osteoporosis.
"There is still much to do, but this could be a unique model of bone regeneration, and our initial work here has begun to provide a foundation for future studies."
The next step is to test the two genes in human cells in the lab, says Professor Yang.
Osteoporosis affects more than three million people in the UK and up to 44 million in the US.
In 2011, the Duchess of Cornwall spoke for the first time about her mother's "slow and agonizing" death from osteoporosis.
The Duchess, President of the National Osteoporosis Society, has lost her mother, Rosalind Shand, who died in 1994 at the age of 72, and her maternal grandmother Sonia Keppel.
"My family and I watched in horror as my mother shrank literally before our eyes," she told the Daily Mail.
"She lost about five inches in height and was so bent that she could not digest her food properly and she no longer had an appetite."
Swedish singer and actress Britt Ekland, best known for playing a Bond girl in "The Man with the Golden Weapon," claims that a diet-related obsession led to her being diagnosed 53 years old.
"I now have osteoporosis to lose weight," she said.
"When I looked in the mirror, I only saw a fat girl.
"But young girls need all the help they can get because people should take responsibility for their own health."
Another famous sufferer was late comedian and talk show presenter Joan River, who was diagnosed in 2002 at the age of 68.
"I was in great health and shocked when my doctor called me with the results of my bone density test and said I had osteoporosis," she said in 2010.
After taking medication to slow her bone loss, Joan almost had a variety of broken bones when she fell down a subway staircase at the age of 76.
Before the incident, Joan, who died of heart failure in September 2014 at the age of 81, said: "I could have been killed, crippled, or left in a life-threatening situation," she said.
"Instead, I wiped myself, got up and walked on."
Although medications are available, current treatment focuses largely on avoiding falls and fractures.