Cell membranes and apoptosis: role of cardiolipin, phosphatidylcholine, and anticancer lipid analogues

Biochem Cell Biol. 2004 Feb;82(1):18-26. doi: 10.1139/o03-092.


The apoptotic program utilizes cellular membranes to transduce and generate operative signals. Lipids are major components of cellular membranes and have the potential to control the effectiveness of the signal by directing it to the proper location, being a source of new signals or as mediators in the response. These possible lipid functions are illustrated in the present review, focussing on the role that two different phospholipids, cardiolipin and phosphatidyl choline, play in apoptosis. Mitochondria have a central role in apoptosis, and many important aspects of the process mediated by this organelle converge through its distinctive lipid cardiolipin. Specifically, changes in cardiolipin metabolism have been detected in early steps of the death program and it is postulated (i) to mediate recruitment of pro apoptotic proteins like Bid to the mitochondria surface and (ii) to actively participate in the release of proteins relevant for the execution phase of apoptosis, like cytochrome c. Unlike the organelle specific distribution of cardiolipin, phosphatidylcholine is widely distributed among all organelles of the cell. The importance of phosphatidylcholine in apoptosis has been approached mainly through the study of the mode of action of (i) phosphatidylcholine anticancer analogues such as edelfosine and (ii) molecules that alter phosphatidylcholine metabolism, such as farnesol. The contribution of phosphatidylcholine metabolism to the apoptotic program is discussed, analyzing the experimental evidence available and pointing out some controversies in the proposed mechanisms of action.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Apoptosis / physiology
  • Cardiolipins / metabolism
  • Cardiolipins / physiology*
  • Cell Membrane / drug effects
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Cytidine Diphosphate Choline / metabolism
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Phosphatidylcholines / biosynthesis
  • Phosphatidylcholines / physiology*
  • Phospholipid Ethers / pharmacology
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Signal Transduction / physiology


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Cardiolipins
  • Phosphatidylcholines
  • Phospholipid Ethers
  • edelfosine
  • Cytidine Diphosphate Choline