Apoptosis, also called programmed cell death, has attracted great attention in recent years. After its discovery by Carl Vogt in 1842, apoptosis research was dormant for more than a century. Its rediscovery in the second half of this century, and the coining of the term apoptosis in 1972 by Kerr, Wyllie, and Currie, ignited an unparalleled interest in this field of science. The number of publications related to apoptosis has been growing exponentially every year ever since. This is mainly due to three major advances, two of which have been made recently and one that is currently seen. First, studies with the small nematode Caenorhabditis elegans have identified a number of apoptosis regulating genes--the first evidence that cell death is an active process under genetic control. Many of these genes have mammalian homologs that, like their worm counterparts, seem to regulate mammalian apoptosis. Second, elucidation of the signal transduction pathways of apoptosis has lead especially to the identification of specific death signaling molecules such as a new family of cysteine proteases, the caspases. Third, it has now become clear that many diseases are characterized by dysregulation of apoptotic programs. Many of these programs involve a family of receptors and their ligands, the death receptor/ligand family. The hope now is to interfere with apoptosis regulation in these systems and to develop new therapeutic concepts.
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