Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
May 19, 2000
Deer antlers may teach humans how to regrow body parts
Humans may one day be able to regrow severed fingers and limbs through medical applications of knowledge learned from deer antlers which are being researched by a University of Guelph professor.
Prof. George Bubenik, Department of Zoology, is studying how scientists can use the embryonic stem cells that induce antler regrowth in white-tailed deer to treat human ailments. Human applications could include the eventual regrowth of fingers and limbs, as well as treatments for arthritis, immune disorders and degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis.
"The growth of deer antlers is one of the wonders of nature and it has great potential for use in medicine," said Bubenik, a medical doctor who taught at the School of Medicine in Basle, Switzerland, and worked in the Department of Neuroendocrinology at Toronto's Clarke Institute of Psychiatry before joining the University of Guelph in 1977.
All deer shed their antlers each year, and the presence of embryonic stem cells in the antlers allow for regrowth of antlers, differentiating into skin, blood vessels, cartilage and bone. "This is what makes them unique among mammals," said Bubenik. "Deer antlers can grow up to two centimetres a day. In other mammals, including human beings, only tumours or embryos have the ability to grow new tissue at such a fast rate."
Deer antlers are strikingly similar to human limbs, consisting of bone, cartilage, skin, blood vessels and nerves. The key to humans regrowing severed limbs or fingers may simply be a matter of understanding the formation and the function of the embryonic stem cells which occur in antler regrowth, Bubenik says. "It is a very complex question that involves biochemistry, endocrinology and cell physiology.
"Once we understand it and can initiate the presence of embryonic stem cells in mature tissue, we can stimulate the regrowth of limbs in other animals and humans," he said.
As a first step, Bubenik is collaborating with researchers in Germany to study the role deer antler embryonic stem cells might play as a model for treatment of osteoporosis. The scientists have learned to grow the embryonic stem cells in tissue cultures, which mean the supply of stem cells is unlimited as they can be frozen and restarted again, he said.
Next, the researchers studied the effect of certain male and female hormones have on the growth and differentiation of antler stem cells. "Our goal is to create cells that will differentiate into other tissue if implanted into that part of the body," Bubenik said. Deer antler stem cells could be directly injected into areas where tissue needs to be regenerated, restoring the function of cartilage in areas of the body such as the knee and elbow, or to facilitate the regeneration of broken bones.
"I believe that in a few years we will be capable of regrowing cartilage, bones, skin and even nerves from these embryonic stem cells," Bubenik said. The hope is that this research will lead to developments that will eventually allow humans to regrow severed fingers and even entire limbs.
"The possibilities could be limitless."
Contact: Prof. George Bubenik Department of Zoology (519) 824-4120, Ext. 8786 (work); (519) 763-2246 (home) firstname.lastname@example.org
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