Cell death, or, more specifically, cell suicide, is a process of fundamental importance to human health. Throughout our lives, over a million cells are produced every second. When organismal growth has stopped, to balance cell division, a similar number of cells must be removed. This is achieved by activation of molecular mechanisms that have evolved so that cells can destroy themselves. The first clues regarding the nature of one of these mechanisms came from studying genes associated with cancer, in particular the gene for BCL-2. Subsequent studies revealed that mutations or other defects that inhibit cell death allow cells to accumulate, prevent removal of cells with damaged DNA, and increase the resistance of malignant cells to chemotherapy. Knowledge of this mechanism has allowed development of drugs that kill cancer cells by directly activating the cell death machinery and by synergizing with conventional chemotherapy as well as targeted agents to achieve improved outcomes for cancer patients.
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