Education And Debate

What is apoptosis, and why is it important? Education and debate

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 23 June 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:1536
  1. Andrew G Renehan, senior clinical felloew,
  2. Catherine Booth, senior scientist,
  3. Christopher S Potten (, professor
  1. Cancer Research Campaign Department of Epithelial Biology, Paterson Institute for Cancer Research, Christie Hospital NHS Trust, Manchester
  1. Correspondence to: C S Potten, EpiStem Ltd, Incubator Building, Manchester M13 9XX

    Philosophers have spent many centuries searching for the meaning of life, but in recent decades cell biologists have become even more fascinated by the meaning of death. Apoptosis describes the orchestrated collapse of a cell characterised by membrane blebbing, cell shrinkage, condensation of chromatin, and fragmentation of DNA followed by rapid engulfment of the corpse by neighbouring cells. It is distinguished from death by necrosis by the absence of an associated inflammatory response. These observations were made by Kerr et al as early as 1972,1 but their importance was underestimated for many years. Today, however, apoptosis is implicated in biological processes ranging from embryogenesis to ageing, from normal tissue homoeostasis to many human diseases, and it has become one of the hottest fields of biomedical research.

    Summary points

    Apoptosis is a genetically regulated form of cell death

    It has a role in biological processes, including embryogenesis, ageing, and many diseases

    The molecular mechanisms involved in death signals, genetic regulation, activation of effectors have been identified

    Many existing treatments (such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and anticancer treatments) act through apoptosis

    New treatments aimed at modifying apoptosis are being developed and are likely to be used to manage common diseases in the next decade

    Biological mechanisms

    The term apoptosis is often used interchangeably with programmed cell death. In the strictest sense, programmed cell death may …

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