Mini-review: A pivotal role for innate immunity in the clearance of apoptotic cells

Eur J Immunol. 2004 Apr;34(4):921-9. doi: 10.1002/eji.200424904.


Apoptotic cells can be recognized and taken up by both macrophages and dendritic cells. Phagocytosis of apoptotic cells generally leads to active suppression of cytokine production by professional phagocytes. This is different from the response towards cells that die by necrosis, which induce a pro-inflammatory cytokine profile. Uptake of apoptotic cells involves a large number of receptors and opsonins, which bind to cellular ligands exposed during the various stages of apoptotic cell death. Among the opsonins of apoptotic cells, complement factors, including C1q, and complement-activating members of the pentraxin family play an important role. This is indicated by in vitro phagocytosis studies and supported by the susceptibility to systemic autoimmunity of carriers of genetic deficiencies for early complement proteins. The present review summarizes the role of molecules of innate immunity in the handling of apoptotic cells by macrophages and dendritic cells. It is proposed that C1q and other opsonins prevent autoimmunity and maintain self-tolerance by supporting the efficient clearance of apoptotic material, as well as by actively modulating phagocyte function.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / immunology*
  • Complement C1q / immunology
  • Dendritic Cells / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate*
  • Macrophages / immunology
  • Opsonin Proteins / immunology*
  • Phagocytosis / immunology*


  • Opsonin Proteins
  • Complement C1q