UCalgary research into reindeer antlers could help unlock secret of human limb regeneration

UCalgary researchers led by  Dr. Li-Fang (Jack) Chu, PhD are on a quest to unlock the secret of tissue regeneration using stem cells in hopes of unleashing a new medical frontier.   

Chu and his team received a  2023 New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) grant  from the federal government. The $250,000, awarded under the NFRF’s Exploration competition, will fund a two-year study to understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for antler regeneration in reindeer, with the aim to apply this knowledge to humans.  

The study was one of six UCalgary research projects receiving the latest round of NFRF grants announced on June 3. 

Reindeer are one of the few mammals where both sexes are capable of tissue regeneration. Each year, they shed and regrow their antlers. What makes reindeers so unique is their antler regrowth is not restricted to one type of tissue.  

"It’s a combination of vasculature, bones, cartilage and neuronal tissue that are regenerating at amazing speed during the period of regrowth," says Chu, who is an assistant professor and a Canada Research Chair (tier II) in Cellular Reprogramming at the  Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM)

Utilizing UCVM’s reindeer research colony and building off robust skin-regeneration research using reindeer currently undertaken by  Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, PhD, and  his lab , Chu and their interdisciplinary team have begun work on establishing pluripotent stem cells - a type of stem cell that can differentiate and turn into any cell type in the body -  from reindeer to model how they grow their antlers.  

Currently, Chu and Biernaskie’s teams, along with international collaborators, are trying to compile a high-quality reindeer genome, which consists of all the genetic information for the species. "Without a complete genome, it is very challenging to study what mechanisms may regulate genes being switched on or off during regeneration," says Chu.

By understanding the building blocks responsible for sustained tissue regeneration in reindeer, Chu and his team hope to create a limitless amount of stem cells to then develop organoids - mini organs - to model tissue regeneration in a petri dish, which could lead to future regenerative therapies for people who experience amputation or degenerative disease.  

Chu’s research team is representative of an interdisciplinary project that combines the fields of regenerative medicine, stem cell biology, veterinary surgery, reproductive physiology and computational biology across UCalgary.  

The NFRF Exploration grant awarded to Chu supports high-risk, high-reward, interdisciplinary research that has the potential to deliver game-changing impacts.  

Chu notes the high-risk nature of the project. "We’re trying to do something which hasn’t been done before." Reindeer pluripotent stem cell lines do not exist and creating stem cells from large mammalian species is not often done. 

But the potential rewards are limitless, says Chu. By developing reindeer stem cell lines, this study has the potential to revolutionize approaches to human tissue and limb regeneration; provide a better understanding of mechanisms behind cancerous tissue growth and how to avoid it; and contribute to conservation efforts for the threatened reindeer and caribou species in Canada.  

$92 million to support Canadian-led research 

François-Phillipe Champagne, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and industry, announced a total of $92 million in NFRF funding in June. 

"The investments announced today help bring world-leading researchers together to work on innovative research projects that could have significant impacts," Champagne said in a press release. "By bringing disciplines together in unexpected ways, we are responding to the challenges Canada and the world are facing."   

"We are immensely proud of our researchers for receiving this crucial support from the federal government," shares Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). "They are addressing the grand challenges of our society with innovative solutions that will undoubtedly create lasting impact in our community." 

The high-risk, high-reward concept is unique, says Chu: "Having the opportunity to test your idea and experiment to see how far it goes - to collect preliminary data - to build a solid research foundation is invaluable."  

UCalgary recipients of New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) 2023 Exploration grant

  • Dr. Maryam Badv, PhD (Schulich School of Engineering): Real-Time Biosensors for Clot Detection on Biomaterials 
  • Dr. Li-Fang (Jack) Chu, PhD (UCalgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine): Harnessing the Regenerative Power of Reindeer: Exploring Mechanisms for Appendage Regeneration Using iPSC-Derived Organoid Models 
  • Dr. Quan Long, PhD (Cumming School of Medicine): Learning Representations of Omics Data to Characterize Biology and Predict Diseases 
  • Dr. Gerald Pfeffer, PhD, MD (Cumming School of Medicine): Indigenous Ways of Knowing Spinal Bulbar Muscular Atrophy and Directing Translational Research. 
  • Dr. Laura Sycuro, PhD (Cumming School of Medicine): Elucidating the Role of the Vaginal Microbiome in Pathological Tissue Remodeling Associated with Pelvic Organ Prolapse 
  • Dr. Vivek Venkataraman, PhD (Faculty of Arts): Indigenous Breakaway Dynamics and Health in Malaysia

This prestigious group represents the breadth and depth of the research and expertise at the University of Calgary, including the seven research institutes within the Cumming School of Medicine: the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health, the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases.