Chinese researchers have been able to grow structures similar to deer antlers on the foreheads of mice by transplanting deer stem cells into mice. Deer antlers fall off and grow again every year, adding an inch (2.5 cm) a day during the spring season. In their new research, researchers from Northwest Polytechnic University in Xi’an Province, China, discovered the cells responsible for this regrowth in deer.
Only 45 days after transplanting these stem cells to the foreheads of hairless mice, small bumps began to grow on their foreheads. The team of Chinese researchers hopes that this success could one day be used to help repair bones or cartilage in humans, or even restore amputated limbs.
Deer antlers are the only body part in mammals that grows anew every year and has one of the fastest growing living tissues in nature. After some animals lose a limb, a population of cells known as the blastema grows, which can eventually become the cells that regrow that limb. Antlered deer have blastema cells that rebuild the tissue and bone of the antler after it falls off.
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In 2020, a different team of researchers found that they could grow cheek bumps by injecting a piece of deer antler tissue under the forehead skin of mice. But for the new research, the researchers wanted to identify those special blastma cells in the horn tissue that are responsible for its regeneration. The team used RNA sequencing to study 75,000 sika deer cells in and around antler tissues. By performing this technique on antler cells before, during, and after antler shedding, the researchers were able to find out exactly which cells are responsible for regrowing the deer’s antlers.
The results showed that 10 days before deer antlers fall, the stem cells at the base of the antlers increase greatly. 5 days after the antlers fall, these cells reproduce a separate subtype of cells that the team of researchers named “horn blastema progenitor cells”. And 10 days after the antlers fell, these cells began to return to the base tissue of the antlers and bones.