Apoptosis, a key process in the development of embryonic tissue differentiation, later helps to regulate the normal cellular life cycle by destroying damaged cells. When something goes awry, too little apoptosis can make cancer cells resistant to chemotherapy and even death-defiant. At the other extreme, premature or excessive apoptosis has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's, and to nerve cell loss in strokes.

Not surprisingly, many major pharmaceutical companies recognize the value of apoptosis research. Understanding and controlling programmed cell death is expected to yield new drug discoveries and therapeutics. Researchers are exploring possible targets through cell-cycle inhibitors and molecules known as apoptosis-inducing factors (AIF). Much of the pharmaceutical research involves caspases--a family of enzymes that cleave intracellular proteins leading to apoptosis--while other efforts focus on the Bcl-2 protein family.

"There is an absolute explosion of research in apoptosis," says Sara Radcliffe, director of research for biologics,...

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