Monday, January 14, 2013

The human machine: decommissioned components

The previous post in this series can be found here

Happy 2013 from all of us here in the Trenches! We successfully made it one more time around the sun, and if that's not a good excuse for a party I don't know what is! Sadly, however, not all of your cells have been having such a swimmingly good time since the calendar ticked over to January the first - in fact nearly one trillion of them have died in the past fortnight alone, at a rate of roughly 70 billion a day, or 800,000 per second. Don't be alarmed, however, as this has been going on for your whole life and is a vitally important part of being a multicellular organism such as yourself. A human without cell death would be like society without human death - overcrowded, unpleasant, and rife with infirmity. Your body needs a system by which damaged, old, or infected cells can be removed in a controlled manner; this process is known as apoptosis.

In this post I will be discussing what we know about how apoptosis works and how it is a key player in the development of cancer and the fighting of infectious disease. I'll also show how our understanding of how this process works has allowed us to devise targeted therapeutics against a number of debilitating conditions.

Cellular suicide - picking the moment

Your cells are team players - they're willing to do anything to serve you, including laying down their lives. Apoptosis depends on this loyalty because it is actually a form of suicide that your cells perform on themselves. Arguably the most important aspect of this is timing - if your cells are in the habit of committing suicide before it is necessary then you'll waste a lot of energy and resources building replacements that shouldn't be needed. On the other hand, if the cell leaves it too late to kill itself then it may find itself incapable of doing so.

So, how does a cell know when to die? Well the most obvious markers for cell death are simply the various forms of damage that can occur to the components of the cell itself. If a cell's membrane becomes damaged, for example, this can cause excess calcium to leak into the cell and so be sensed by a number of calcium-binding proteins, such as calpain, which in turn signal that apoptosis should begin. Similarly, damage to DNA is sensed by the complex machinery of the DNA repair pathway. For example, PARP is a protein that binds to single-strand breaks in DNA caused by DNA damaging agents such as radiation (think sunburn!) or chemical mutagens like free radicals. PARP and other DNA damage sensors relay their information to a number of signalling proteins, most importantly p53. If p53 is activated in response to DNA damage it signals to stop the usual processes of cell division and begin DNA repair, but if the damage is just too bad it makes the call to start apoptosis and destroy the cell.