Programmed Cell Death Affects Heart

BOSTON--Programmed cell death is called is called apoptosis. Apoptosis is a normal feature of cell replacement in developing and aging adult tissues. It is regulated by a genetic program within each cell which orchestrates a series of biochemical events. The cells affected by apoptosis can be identified by certain characteristics.

Heart failure is a common disease in the United States, affecting over 3 million persons. Heart failure is the medical term used to describe a heart with inadequate function. Heart failure is the end-product of weakening of the heart muscle (cadiomyopathy). Heart failure can be initiated by high blood pressure (hypertension), inflammation or infection of the heart muscle (myocarditis), diabetes, alcohol toxicity, and coronary artery disease. End-stage cardiomyopathy is not curable without a heart transplant.

Researchers in Boston recently examined hearts obtained during heart transplantation. The hearts from patients with cardiomyopathy demonstrated the characteristic features of apoptosis. These results, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (1996;335:1182-9), support the concept that programmed cell death plays a role in leading to end-stage heart failure.

In an accompanying editorial, Wilson S. Colucci, M.D. points out that if apoptosis is found to contribute to the development of cardiomyopathy (and, therefore, heart failure) many new possible treatment methods may be forthcoming. These innovative techniques might include interrupting the signals that trigger the biochemical reactions leading to the cell death in apoptosis.

The Medical Editors of would like to emphasize that apoptosis is an active area of biomedical research throughout the world. Study results can have implications relating to a variety of processes ranging from aging to cancer. We look forward to many new medical breakthroughs as we enter the next century.

Last Editorial Review: 12/31/1997