Immune function: promising first steps

10 May 2022
Immune function: promising first steps

In traditional medicine, velvet antler has long been valued for helping boost immunity. But making human health claims for the immunity-boosting effects of deer velvet when selling products is a different story and must be backed by robust science.

The first steps on that journey have been successfully made, with some promising results.

Preliminary research led by AgResearch's Dr Axel Heiser, co-funded by Deer Industry New Zealand (DINZ) and AgResearch, focused on the effects of deer velvet extracts on both innate and adaptive immunity.

Some background first: Innate immunity is the body’s next line of defence against foreign organisms that have made it past physical barriers like the skin and mucosal linings. Innate immunity works fast and aggressively but isn’t very targeted. White blood cells are part of this immune system rapid response team.

Adaptive immunity is slower to work but is more targeted. It learns to recognise particular invaders so they can be quickly picked out and attacked if they appear again. Vaccination harnesses this power by teaching the immune system to look out for specific microbial troublemakers.

Could deer velvet give the immune system a helping hand? The immune function research built on earlier 2021 work investigating the composition of two significant velvet grades: SA Traditional (SAT) and SA Non Traditional (SANT).

This work showed that the amino acid profiles of the two grades were essentially identical, although it’s possible there are differences in the way these building blocks are assembled if you drill down to analyse the various bioactive products for each grade. More work is needed on this.

The same extracts used in the composition research, five each from SAT and SANT velvet, were used in the immune function work.

Suppressing friendly fire?

When a white blood cell (part of the innate immune system) consumes a foreign bug there’s a “respiratory burst” process that produces byproducts called reactive oxygen species (ROS). If ROS levels are too high, this can damage immune cells as well as wiping out the invader. It’s a bit like lobbing a hand grenade to take out your enemy and getting caught in the blast.

In the samples treated with SAT velvet extracts, significantly less ROS was produced. This means immune cells could be better protected as they do their job fighting infections.

Gene expression changed

Looking at the way key genes were expressed in the adaptive immune system, the researchers investigated 19 genes and found two in particular that stood out.

IL-2 helps white blood cells do their job more accurately by killing the invaders that need to be killed while avoiding damage to the host. Using samples provided by human donors, in those treated with velvet extracts (both grades) there were significantly more RNA copies available to produce IL-2.

ITGAM helps regulate the way white blood cells move around and interact with other cells. The gene that produces ITGAM can be downregulated by a disease organism. (This is a bit like a burglar disabling an alarm system before they start thieving.) When the velvet extracts were introduced to the samples (both grades), this downregulation didn’t happen. The white blood cells could get on and do their work without interference.

What it means; where to now?

This work is an encouraging first step. It showed clearly that these velvet extracts had an impact on aspects of the human immune system.

But there’s a long way to go on the journey to verifiable human health claims for immune function. We know there are effects but we still need to understand what bioactive components within velvet are responsible.

We also need to understand why there might be differences between effects of extracts from the different grades. And beyond that, the significance of differences in year of harvest, farm/herd of origin also need to be explored.

**The above article by Phil Stewart was reproduced from the Deer Industry News**