UC Santa Barbara discovers cell survival gene may lead to treatments for degenerative diseases

(Santa Barbara, Calif.) Our cells are constantly making life and death decisions. A new gene that controls this life or death switch and protects cells from dying has been discovered by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as reported in the August 28 edition of the scientific journal Nature.

The discovery may provide scientists with new means for identifying drugs that combat degenerative diseases such as Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), the destructive effects of stroke and heart diseases, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.

Chilling though it sounds, our cells are poised on the brink of death. Yet the ongoing death of some of our cells is actually essential for us to live. "Death, that is to say cell death, is a key player in biology and medicine," said Joel Rothman, associate professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, and leader of the UCSB research team. "Cells often commit suicide so that others may live. This is the ultimate example of altruism at the cellular level."

Why would a cell kill itself off? "Programmed cell death is one of the first lines of defense against cancer and infection by invaders such as viruses," notes Rothman. "Ironically, the failure of a wayward cell to die can actually lead to death of the individual."

By killing itself off, a malignant or infected cell can prevent the disease from spreading. However, the throttle on cell death must be carefully set. "While death is a necessary part of our survival, too much cell death is disastrous," said Rothman "That is what happens in degenerative diseases."

The gene identified by Rothman and UCSB postdoctoral researchers Tim Bloss and Eric Witze is called ICD-1 (inhibitor of cell death gene 1). It prevents normal cells from committing suicide. "As often happens in research, we were looking into an entirely different process when we stumbled across this cell death gene,"

Contact: Eileen Conrad
University of California - Santa Barbara

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