Cells That Live and Let Die

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In the developing nervous system, cells play their own version of television's popular Survivor series with a bit of a twist. Rather than being voted off by their teammates, some cells in the developing nervous system will automatically die unless adjacent cells select them to live. Determining how this process works is important, because brain cells that fall short of their normal life spans are associated with such devastating diseases as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. More than half a million Americans have Parkinson's disease(1), while Alzheimer's disease affects an estimated 4 million Americans(2). On the other hand, many cancerous tumors result in part from cells' escaping the mechanisms that determine when they should die.

Dr. Hermann Steller of Rockefeller University has identified an important molecular pathway that nervous system cells use to signal neighboring cells to survive. He also identified how the surviving cells stimulate the development of cells that transmit messages within the nervous system. Dr. Steller used fruit fly embryos for his research, but similarities between fruit fly and human cells mean that his findings could provide a model for studying cell death and survival in humans.

This research may one day lead to new treatments for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other degenerative neurological diseases. Such therapies might keep brain cells alive by providing the necessary "survive" signal. With a greater understanding of cell death and survival, scientists also may be able to devise new ways to kill cancer cells. Since one of the traits of cancer is unchecked cell growth, activating the cell death program in cancer cells could halt this disease.


1 Parkinson’s Disease--Hope Through Research, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NIH Publication No. 94-139, September 1994 (updated at http://www.ninds.nih.gov/health_and_medical/pubs/p​arkinson_disease_htr.htm, July 2001).

2 Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet, Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center, NIH Publication No. 01-3431, September 2001.