DR GEORGIA ATKIN SMITH
Cells rising from the ashes: the dance of death keeping us alive
Every 10 seconds, about 10 million cells within our bodies will die, yet here we are, still standing. Cell death is a normal part of our body’s regulation needed to remove old, damaged or infected cells within the body.
Although the process of cell death is essential to keep us healthy, it requires a fine balance. Too much cell death can lead to neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease where the cells in the brain degrade. In contrast, too little cell death may lead to the rapid expansion of cancer cells. Importantly, once our cells die, they also need to be quickly removed.
Dying cells are removed by a specialized cell-type call phagocytes – essentially, the garbage truck cells of the body. Once they have been instructed to die, our cells use an array of molecular messages to help their removal. This includes releasing ‘find me’ signals to tell the phagocyte where they are, and ‘eat me’ signals that tell the phagocyte which cell to eat or, ‘engulf’.
This process of dying cell engulfment is vital as the accumulation of dying cells is a well-known trigger of inflammation and inflammatory disease.
Inflammation is like the body’s way of ringing the alarm bells however, just like cell death, it also requires a fine balance. Too little inflammatory signals may be insufficient to bring in enough reinforcements to help fight the danger. In contrast, too much inflammation can overwhelm the body and be extremely harmful. Therefore, heightened levels of inflammation are often a hallmark of devastating diseases like viral or bacterial infections and autoimmunity