Medicine: Deer could hold key to bone disease

Deer antlers, and the unusual way they grow, could provide valuable clues for scientists investigating brittle bone disease in humans.

In osteoporosis, bone minerals and protein are drawn back by the body, causing the bones to lose density. A similar process happens in red deer to provide the raw material for the antlers, which are re-grown and then shed each year. During the summer the antlers grow rapidly, fuelled by the resorption of bone in other parts of the body, especially the ribs. But unlike osteoporosis in humans, the process in deer is reversible. During the winter, when the antlers are dead, the bone lost to the rest of the skeleton is replaced.

Dr Joanna Price, from the Bone and Mineral Centre at University College London Medical School, is heading a study of antler regeneration and the mechanisms underlying bone resorption in red deer. In particular she has been looking at the role of sex hormones and proteins known as growth factors. She said: "We believe the underlying cellular mechanisms are similar ... If we knew how deer are able to strengthen their osteoporotic bones, we might be better placed to devise effective treatments for the human disease."