Forms of Cell Death

Following the description of apoptosis in the British Journal of Cancer in 1972, scientists around the world incorporated the concept of programmed cell death into their cancer research. What is less understood is the fact that apoptosis is not synonymous with programmed cell death. Programmed cell death is a fundamental feature of multicellular organism biology. Mutated cells incapable of performing their normal functions self-destruct in service of the multicellular organism as a whole. While apoptosis represents an important mechanism of programmed cell death, it is only one of several cell death pathways. Apoptotic cell death occurs with certain mutational events, DNA damage, oxidative stress and withdrawal of some growth factors particularly within the immune system. Non-apoptotic programmed cell death includes: programmed necrosis, para-apoptosis, autophagic cell death, nutrient withdrawal, and subtypes associated with mis-folded protein response, and PARP mediated cell death. While apoptotic cell death follows a recognized cascade of caspase mediated enzymatic events, non-apoptotic cell death occurs in the absence of caspase activation.

With the recognition of programmed cell death as a principal factor in carcinogenesis and cancer response to therapy, there has been a growing belief that the measurement of apoptosis alone will provide the insights needed in cancer biology. This oversimplification underestimates the complexity of cell biology and suggests that cancer cells have but one mechanisms of response to injury. It has previously been shown that cancer cells that suffer lethal injury and initiate the process of apoptosis can be treated with caspase inhibitors to prevent caspase-mediated apoptosis. Of interest, these cells are not rescued from death. Instead, these cells committed to death, undergo a form of non-apoptotic programmed cell death more consistent with necrosis. Thus, commitment to death overrides mechanism of death.

Labs that focus on measurements of caspase activation can only measure apoptotic cell death. While apoptotic cell death is of importance in hematologic cancers and some solid tumors, it does not represent the mechanism of cell death in all tumors. This is why we measure all cell death events by characterizing metabolic viability at the level of cell membrane integrity, ATP content, or mitochondrial function. While caspase activation is of interest, comparably easy to measure and useful in many leukemias and lymphomas, it does not represent cancer cell death in all circumstances and can be an unreliable parameter in many solid tumors.

About Dr. Robert A. Nagourney
Dr. Nagourney received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston University and his doctor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, where he was a University Scholar. After a residency in internal medicine at the University of California, Irvine, he went on to complete fellowship training in medical oncology at Georgetown University, as well as in hematology at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. During his fellowship at Georgetown University, Dr. Nagourney confronted aggressive malignancies for which the standard therapies remained mostly ineffective. No matter what he did, all of his patients died. While he found this “standard of care” to be unacceptable, it inspired him to return to the laboratory where he eventually developed “personalized cancer therapy.” In 1986, Dr. Nagourney, along with colleague Larry Weisenthal, MD, PhD, received a Phase I grant from a federally funded program and launched Oncotech, Inc. They began conducting experiments to prove that human tumors resistant to chemotherapeutics could be re-sensitized by pre-incubation with calcium channel blockers, glutathione depletors and protein kinase C inhibitors. The original research was a success. Oncotech grew with financial backing from investors who ultimately changed the direction of the company’s research. The changes proved untenable to Dr. Nagourney and in 1991, he left the company he co-founded. He then returned to the laboratory, and developed the Ex-vivo Analysis - Programmed Cell Death ® (EVA-PCD) test to identify the treatments that would induce programmed cell death, or “apoptosis.” He soon took a position as Director of Experimental Therapeutics at the Cancer Institute of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. His primary research project during this time was chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He remained in this position until the basic research program funding was cut, at which time he founded Rational Therapeutics in 1995. It is here where the EVA-PCD test is used to identity the drug, combinations of drugs or targeted therapies that will kill a patient's tumor - thus providing patients with truly personalized cancer treatment plans. With the desire to change how cancer care is delivered, he became Medical Director of the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial in 2003. In 2008, he returned to Rational Therapeutics full time to rededicate his time and expertise to expand the research opportunities available through the laboratory. He is a frequently invited lecturer for numerous professional organizations and universities, and has served as a reviewer and on the editorial boards of several journals including Clinical Cancer Research, British Journal of Cancer, Gynecologic Oncology, Cancer Research and the Journal of Medicinal Food.

One Response to Forms of Cell Death

  1. Nadine Hellings says:

    My daughter was found to have a sarcoma while in surgery to remove
    what was thought to be a benign tumor. Because I had ordered a kit
    from Rational Therapeutics, the tumor, which was very rare, was able
    to be treated with the one chemo drug which would be effective.

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