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Updated February 26, 2009

Definition: Apoptosis is a natural, genetically controlled series of steps that occurs when a cell is old, unhealthy, or severely damaged. The end result is that the cell esentially self-destructs. Other cells, known as phagocytes, then arrive and engulf the remnants in order to avoid an inflammatory reaction.

Apoptosis in the skin kills off cells harmed by ultraviolet light (UVA) so that they do not turn cancerous. (The peeling after sunburn is the result of these dead skin cells.) In some cases, however, genetic mutations or other factors derail apoptosis. If this occurs, the cells can become "immortal" and continue to proliferate, resulting in skin cancer.

Elesclomol is an example of a drug that causes apoptosis in cancerous cells. It is currently being tested in clinical trials for the treatment of advanced melanoma.

Also Known As: programmed cell death, defective cell death, cell suicide, self-destruct
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