White-tailed deer antlers might someday hold the key to curing bone cancer, and the research into it might help hunters take bigger trophies.
There are still a lot of ifs in a research project just a year old, and no one at this time knows whether the trail may ultimately lead to a medical breakthrough or a new understanding of deer antlers for wildlife managers.
The project is a cooperative between the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville and Houston's Baylor College of Medicine. Although seemingly an odd couple, the two got hooked up basically through CKWRI board member who knew its biologists were active in antler research and that Baylor was studying bones.
The connection is that antlers from animals in the Cervidae family like white-tailed and mule deer, elk and caribou are bone. What makes them of interest medically is that they are one of the fastest growing bones known.
Man has used deer antler for a variety of medical purposes for eons, but those folk medicines are not where this research is headed.
"What we are doing is using antlers as a model of bone grown," said Dr. David Hewitt, one of the CKWRI researchers involved in the project. "Antlers are bones that grow different than normal bone growth in humans and other mammals."
Of special interest are stem cells located at the antler pedestals that allows them to grow annually.
"It could give insight into bone repair. Antler growth is sometimes called a cancer because they grow so fast, so who knows, it may someday give insight into bone cancer," Hewitt said.
He added the research into the antler stem cell could also open a door to possibly even growing bone.
Hewitt said at this point the research is open ended.
"We will chase it as far as it will go and see what will come out of it," he said.
Hewitt noted that this isn't the only research of its type going on in the U.S.
However, working with a facility known for its genetics research makes this a little different. In something of an exchange for its help, Baylor is doing a DNA genome of white-tailed deer. This also isn't ground breaking. Texas A&M has already done one genome mapping of deer, but Hewitt is hoping more could be learned from Baylor's effort.
"I don't know enough about the distinction (between the A&M genome project and Baylor's), but Baylor was one of three or four research facilities that worked on the human genome project. It took 20 years to do the human genome. It is going to take about one year for the deer genome," Hewitt said.
He said he hopes the project helps deer researchers understand more about antler growth, everything from why a deer grows similar antlers year after year, and then one year produces something else, to what determines the influences of the buck and the doe on a young bucks antler growth or maybe what factors turn antler growth on and off making some deer bigger than others or able to produce offspring with larger antlers than they grew.
"One of the things I find intriguing is that antlers are extremely variable. You just can't predict what they are going to look like from one individual to the next, or even the same deer from one year to the next, even if you have years of shed antlers from it," Hewitt said.
He said biologists know young bucks sometimes overwhelming take on the traits of their fathers. In other cases it appears the doe passes along the antler genetics. When that happens it is believed the quality of the antlers may be impacted by not only the food supplies available to the doe in her lifetime, but also the amount of stress she undergoes.
Hewitt said hopefully in that case the genome project well tell researchers what the genes are doing to impact growth.
"There is a lot that could be explained on the molecular level on how some of these are turned on or turned off based on the stress level," he said.
He said the study may also explain mysteries like why there are spikes and whether they should be an early target or not.
Hewitt said the research could translate into a variety of management information about deer in the wild, and certainly could provide captive deer growers with more information to work with in breeding programs.
He would also like to see it explain why different Cervidae species grow unique antlers such as white-tailed deer versus mule deer.
"It is kind of exciting. It is taking us out of normal realm of research to be able to interact with some of the premier medical institutes," Hewitt said.
Which only shows, this isn't your grandfather's deer hunting anymore