Exploring the mechanisms regulating regeneration of deer antlers

J. Price, S. Allen

Abstract

Deer antlers are the only mammalian appendages capable of repeated rounds of regeneration; every year they are shed and regrow from a blastema into large branched structures of cartilage and bone that are used for fighting and display. Longitudinal growth is by a process of modified endochondral ossification and in some species this can exceed 2 cm per day, representing the fastest rate of organ growth in the animal kingdom. However, despite their value as a unique model of mammalian regeneration the underlying mechanisms remain poorly understood. We review what is currently known about the local and systemic regulation of antler regeneration and some of the many unsolved questions of antler physiology are discussed. Molecules that we have identified as having potentially important local roles in antlers include parathyroid hormone–related peptide and retinoic acid (RA). Both are present in the blastema and in the rapidly growing antler where they regulate the differentiation of chondrocytes, osteoblasts and osteoclasts in vitro. Recent studies have shown that blockade of RA signalling can alter cellular differentiation in the blastema in vivo. The trigger that regulates the expression of these local signals is likely to be changing levels of sex steroids because the process of antler regeneration is linked to the reproductive cycle. The natural assumption has been that the most important hormone is testosterone, however, at a cellular level oestrogen may be a more significant regulator. Our data suggest that exogenous oestrogen acts as a ‘brake’, inhibiting the proliferation of progenitor cells in the antler tip while stimulating their differentiation, thus inhibiting continued growth. Deciphering the mechanism(s) by which sex steroids regulate cell–cycle progression and cellular differentiation in antlers may help to address why regeneration is limited in other mammalian tissues.