Antlers may hold the cure to debilitating bone disease such as osteoporosis, new study finds

Antlers grow at a speed umatched in the animal kingdom - REUTERS
Antlers grow at a speed umatched in the animal kingdom - REUTERS

Deer antlers may hold the secret to curing osteoporosis and other debilitating bone diseases, researchers have revealed.

A new study has identified the specific genes responsible for the growth and strength of antlers, paving the way for a future genetic treatment for human bone conditions.

A form of temporary external bone, antlers grow at a speed unique in the animal kingdom.

They sprout in the spring and by the summer can grow at up to 2cm a day, before beginning to shed by the start of winter.

Peter Yang, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Sanford University, began investigating deer after learning about the species while on holiday in Alaska.

"It made me wonder - are there special genes that are behind this unusually fast bone growth?” he said.

From samples taken from sprouting antlers, which are still soft and has a form similar to cartilage, his team identified the area of the animal’s genome governing the growth of antlers.

In particular, they found a gene called uhrf1, which supports rapid bone cell proliferation, and s100a10, responsible for the rapid mineralisation, or hardening, of bone tissue.

The scientists believe this discovery may have transformative potential for medicine because both genes are also linked to bone development in humans, meaning a future treatment could stimulate their activity.

Osteoporosis is a condition that weakens bones, making them increasingly fragile and liable to break.

It affects approximately 3 million people in the UK and is responsible for more than 500,000 hospital visits, mainly as a result of wrist and hip fractures.

Last year the Duchess of Cornwall encouraged people to build up their bone strength while still young to avoid the type of “agonising” death suffered by her mother and grandmother, who both suffered from the disease.

Published in the Journal of Stem Cell Research and Therapy, the new study describes how the team applied the uhrf1 gene to mice in a lab, which resulted in the rapid cell proliferation characteristic of antler growth.

Similarly, when they applied the s100a10 gene to mice, they saw an increase in bone density.

The Duchess of Cornwall as, then Camilla Shand, left, with her mother the Hon. Mrs Shand, who suffered from osteoporosis - Credit: Desmond O'Neill
The Duchess of Cornwall, then Camilla Shand, left, with her mother, the Hon. Mrs Shand, who suffered from osteoporosis Credit: Desmond O'Neill

"Antler regeneration is a unique phenomenon that, to me, is worth studying just out of pure curiosity, but it may have some really interesting applications for human health," said Professor Yang.

"We're just at the beginning of this research, but our ultimate goal is to figure out how we can apply the same underlying biology that allows for rapid bone regeneration in deer antlers to help treat human bone conditions, such as osteoporosis.”

In healthy human bones, two types of cells, osteoblasts and osteoclasts, work as opposing forces.

Osteoblasts produce new bone tissue, while osteoclasts break down old bone.

The two cell types work in tension to continuously form and degrade bone to maintain balanced bone structure.

However, in osteoporosis, osteoclast function overtakes osteoblasts, and the bone starts to break down.

Women are particularly prone to the disease because of hormonal changes that occur during the menopause, although other factors include heavy drinking and smoking, having a low body mass index, and the long-term use of certain medications such as corticosteroids.

Most of the treatment for osteoporosis is focused at trying to prevent falls and fractures, however some medications do exist to limit the severity of the disease.

Professor Yang said the next task would be to test uhrf1 and s100a10 in human cells in laboratory experiments.