Phagocytosis of apoptotic cells and the resolution of inflammation

Biochim Biophys Acta. 2003 Nov 20;1639(3):141-51. doi: 10.1016/j.bbadis.2003.09.004.


Clearance of apoptotic cells by phagocytic cells plays a significant role in the resolution of inflammation, protecting tissue from harmful exposure to the inflammatory and immunogenic contents of dying cells. Apoptosis induces cell surface changes that are important for recognition and engulfment of cells by phagocytes. These changes include alterations in surface sugars, externalization of phosphatidylserine and qualitative changes in the adhesion molecule ICAM-3. Several studies have contributed to clarify the role of the receptors on the surface of phagocytes that are involved in apoptotic cell clearance. The phagocytic removal of apoptotic cells does not elicit pro-inflammatory responses; in contrast, apoptotic cell engulfment appears to activate signals that suppress release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Therefore, clearance of apoptotic leucocytes is implicated in the resolution of inflammation and mounting evidence suggests that defective clearance of apoptotic cells contributes to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Defining the ligands on apoptotic cells and the corresponding receptors on phagocytes with which they engage, is likely to lead to the development of novel anti-inflammatory pro-resolution drugs. In this article, we will review the recognition and signaling mechanisms involved in the phagocytosis of apoptotic cells as well as the role of endogenous compounds that play a relevant role in the modulation of inflammation. We will also discuss what is currently known about diseases that may reflect impaired phagocytosis and the consequences on inflammation and immune responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis*
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Inflammation / physiopathology*
  • Ligands
  • Membrane Proteins*
  • Phagocytosis / physiology*
  • Phosphatidylserines / physiology
  • Receptors, Immunologic / physiology
  • Receptors, Lipoprotein*
  • Receptors, Scavenger
  • Scavenger Receptors, Class B
  • Signal Transduction


  • Ligands
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Phosphatidylserines
  • Receptors, Immunologic
  • Receptors, Lipoprotein
  • Receptors, Scavenger
  • Scarb1 protein, mouse
  • Scavenger Receptors, Class B