Deer antlers, which sprout anew each year, have properties that intrigue scientists.
Could deer antlers hold the answer to aiding paraplegics? Scientists studying the bony structures think they might yield secrets that could be used for nerve growth or even regenerating limbs.
Every spring, antlers sprout anew on the heads of male deer, but unlike the cells that make up hair and fingernails, these cells are alive.
In the 1960s, scientists began to experiment with transplanting some of these antler-forming cells onto different parts of the deer's skull and then different parts of their body, and antlers formed wherever the cell patches were placed.
"As the antler grows rapidly, reaching up to 2 cm per day, the nerves have to match that pace," Wolfgang Pita Thomas, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis, told Smithsonian.com. "This means that they regenerate 10 times faster than human nerves. We hope to apply the same mechanisms or molecules to one day enhance nerve regeneration in humans."
If researchers can tap into this rapid growth capability, they might be able to use it to spur damaged human nervous systems into regenerating after a paraplegic injury. Currently, this kind of growth can be done only in small increments, such as grafting nerves from another part of the body and using artificial collagen conduits to guide nerve growth. But these methods aren't as effective if the distance the nerves must cross is more than an inch.
Pita Thomas and his colleagues have identified three of the proteins involved in the antler's rapid nerve production and found that sensory neurons grow faster when all three are present in a culture.
"The nerves present in the deer antlers can regenerate up to several feet in less than three months," he said.