What is apoptosis?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
The cells of animals and humans infected by a virus have a "suicide" program called apoptosis, or programmed cell death. A cell that is invaded by a virus can self-destruct, thereby preventing the virus from reproducing inside the cell and spreading to other cells.
Apoptosis is the death of a cell. This process, also called cell suicide, is triggered when a cell stops receiving hormones and proteins needed to function, or when a cell sustains enough damage to stop functioning properly. The nucleus condenses, releasing chemical signals. These chemicals attract phospholipids that flood the cell fragments, degrade the chromosomes and transport them out of the body as waste. There are several reasons why cells are programmed to die after a certain point. For instance, when human fetuses develop, there is tissue that creates webbing between the fingers. This tissue undergoes apoptosis, which allows the fingers to form. Menstruation, where the lining of the uterus is shed monthly, occurs because of apoptosis. This programmed cellular death also combats cancer by keeping cells from growing uncontrollably. Chemotherapy drugs attack cancerous cells in part by triggering apoptosis.

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