Int. J. Dev. Biol. 59: 1 - 3 (2015)
doi: 10.1387/ijdb.150168md
© UPV/EHU Press

Programmed Cell death in Development and Tumors

Massimo De Felici1 and Mauro Piacentini2

1Department of Biomedicine and Prevention, University of Rome Tor Vergata and 2National Institute for Infectious Diseases I.R.C.C.S. ‘Lazzaro Spallanzani’ and Department of Biology, University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’, Rome, Italy

ABSTRACT Programmed cell death (PCD) plays a fundamental role in animal development and tissue homeostasis. It is now well known that abnormal regulation of this process is associated with a wide variety of human diseases, including cancer. Historically, the concept of PCD, meaning that cells followed a sequence of controlled (implying an intracellular genetic program) events though their own death, was used by Lockshin and Williams in 1964 in relation to insect metamorphosis (Lockshin and Williams, 1964). However, several years before, embryologists such as Saunders and Glücksmann had observed the frequent occurrence of cell death in various locations and stages of embryo development, and suggested that cell death functions as a crucial mechanism in integrating cells into tissues and organs in normal vertebrate development. Around eight years after the Lockshin and Williams’ paper, the term "apoptosis" was coined by three pathologists, Kerr, Wyllie and Currie, to describe common morphologies of cell death in several pathological tissues (Kerr et al., 1972). An essential contribution for the development of this research field was given by the genetic dissection of the cell death pathway in the nematode C. elegans carried out by H. Robert Horvitz and his co-workers in the 80s (Ellis and Horvitz, 1986). For these important studies, H. Robert Horvitz together with Sydney Brenner and John E. Sulston received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002 "for their discoveries concerning the genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death".