‘Elk Antler Velvet supplements may transmit mad deer disease’

Elk Antler Velvet supplements users are exposing themselves to a prion disease that is currently decimating the reindeer population, warn US government funded researchers in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The antlers of growing reindeer are covered with deer velvet. Asian healers regard it as having rejuvenating properties, and add it to all sorts of preparations, especially those designed to pep up elderly men. When reports appeared in the media about reindeer dying from the deer version of Mad Cow Disease (Chronic Wasting Disease or CWD) the Asian market for these products collapsed. The supplements manufacturers then went in search of less critical consumers, which they found in the sports market. Deer velvet enhances the production of anabolic hormones, according to the abstracts of studies that have never been published.

A recent animal study, the results of which have been published, puts paid to most of these claims. Rats that were given deer velvet in their food didn’t put on an ounce of extra weight, according to research done at the University of Saskatchewan. The study makes no mention of any side effects either.

In theory, however, the possibility of side effects is real, according to the authors of the article published recently in Emerging Infectious Diseases. The researchers took pieces of brain tissue and deer velvet from animals that had died of Mad Deer Disease and injected extracts of them into the brains of mice. The mice had been genetically modified so that their brains were more similar to those of reindeer.

Whether they had been given injections containing brain tissue or deer velvet, the mice’s brains were damaged. The black dots on the images below show the bad prions in the mice’s brain tissue.

The graph below shows the relationship between the concentrations used and the time before the disease manifested. The solid black circles and squares represent the animals that fell ill. The graph suggests that the mice that were only injected with a very small amount of infected material did not become ill.

So there are three reasons why supplements users don’t have to worry too much: the test animals had genetic material from reindeer in their DNA, the infected material was injected directly into their brains, and low concentrations had no effect.

Nevertheless the researchers do express concern about supplements users, especially that Mad Deer Disease might not be recognised in humans. "If CWD were to cross the species barrier into humans, this transmission source might not be recognized if the disease profile overlapped with one of the forms of sporadic CJD reported in North America."

Emerg Infect Dis. 2009 May;15(5):696-703.