Cell Death Discovery Has Healing Power

Release Date:
Kirstie Saltsman

Decades of research have taught scientists that cells have two ways to die. The first, necrosis, is a nonspecific response to an overwhelming stress such as a heart attack or exposure to poison. Researchers have viewed the other kind of cell death, known as apoptosis, as a normal, programmed process that helps shape organs and rid the body of potentially harmful or unneeded cells. Recently, however, scientists have begun to suspect that apoptosis may also have a dark side, potentially contributing to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

New work from Junying Yuan, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School may help settle the issue by defining a third way cells can perish. Necroptosis, as the name suggests, shares characteristics with both necrosis and apoptosis, and Yuan has found that it can occur in healthy cells. Under the microscope, a cell dying by necroptosis looks a lot like a cell dying by necrosis—it swells up and bursts, spewing its contents on neighboring cells. However, as a cell dies this way, it proceeds through a series of chemical steps resembling apoptosis. Yuan found that necroptosis contributed to delayed brain injury in mice suffering a stroke-like event. In further work, she identified a molecule, necrostatin-1, that significantly lessened necroptosis-induced brain damage.

Yuan’s research highlights the value of exploring basic cellular function to uncover new knowledge about health and disease. The findings may also help scientists learn how to develop necrostatin-1 or similar molecules as medicines for stroke or other medical conditions that involve necroptosis.