Diseases Associated With Apoptosis

The many different types of apoptosis pathways contain a multitude of different biochemical components, many of them not yet understood. As a pathway is more or less sequential in nature, removing or modifying one component leads to an effect in another. In a living organism, this can have disastrous effects, often in the form of disease or disorder.

A discussion of every disease caused by modification of the various apoptotic pathways would be impractical, but the concept overlying each one is the same: The normal functioning of the pathway has been disrupted in such a way as to impair the ability of the cell to undergo normal apoptosis. This results in a cell that lives past its “use-by-date” and is able to replicate and pass on any faulty machinery to its progeny, increasing the likelihood of the cell’s becoming cancerous or diseased.

A recently described example of this concept in action can be seen in the development of a lung cancer called NCI-H460. The X-linked inhibitor of apoptosis protein (XIAP) is overexpressed in cells of the H460 cell line. XIAPs bind to the processed form of caspase-9, and suppress the activity of apoptotic activator cytochrome c, therefore overexpression leads to a decrease in the amount of proapoptotic agonists.

As a consequence, the balance of anti-apoptotic and proapoptotic effectors is upset in favour of the former, and the damaged cells continue to replicate despite being directed to die. Defects in regulation of apoptosis in cancer cells occur often at the level of control of transcription factors.

As a particular example, defects in molecules that control transcription factor NF-κB in cancer change the mode of transcriptional regulation and the response to apoptotic signals, to curtail dependence on the tissue that the cell belongs. This degree of independence from external survival signals, can enable cancer metastasis.

Dysregulation Of p53

The tumor-suppressor protein p53 accumulates when DNA is damaged due to a chain of biochemical factors. Part of this pathway includes alpha-interferon and beta-interferon, which induce transcription of the p53 gene, resulting in the increase of p53 protein level and enhancement of cancer cell-apoptosis.

protein p53

Representation of a complex between DNA and the protein p53
Credit: Thomas Splettstoesser CC BY-SA 3.0

p53 prevents the cell from replicating by stopping the cell cycle at G1, or interphase, to give the cell time to repair, however it will induce apoptosis if damage is extensive and repair efforts fail. Any disruption to the regulation of the p53 or interferon genes will result in impaired apoptosis and the possible formation of tumors.

Inhibition Of Apoptosis

Inhibition of apoptosis can result in a number of cancers, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases, and viral infections. It was originally believed that the associated accumulation of cells was due to an increase in cellular proliferation, but it is now known that it is also due to a decrease in cell death.

The most common of these diseases is cancer, the disease of excessive cellular proliferation, which is often characterized by an overexpression of IAP family members. As a result, the malignant cells experience an abnormal response to apoptosis induction: Cycle-regulating genes (such as p53, ras or c-myc) are mutated or inactivated in diseased cells, and further genes (such as bcl-2) also modify their expression in tumors.

Some apoptotic factors are vital during mitochondrial respiration e.g. cytochrome C. Pathological inactivation of apoptosis in cancer cells is correlated with frequent respiratory metabolic shifts toward glycolysis (an observation known as the Warburg hypothesis.

HeLa Cell

Apoptosis in HeLa[b] cells is inhibited by proteins produced by the cell; these inhibitory proteins target retinoblastoma tumor-suppressing proteins. These tumor-suppressing proteins regulate the cell cycle, but are rendered inactive when bound to an inhibitory protein.

HPV E6 and E7 are inhibitory proteins expressed by the human papillomavirus, HPV being responsible for the formation of the cervical tumor from which HeLa cells are derived. HPV E6 causes p53, which regulates the cell cycle, to become inactive.

HPV E7 binds to retinoblastoma tumor suppressing proteins and limits its ability to control cell division. These two inhibitory proteins are partially responsible for HeLa cells’ immortality by inhibiting apoptosis to occur. CDV (Canine Distemper Virus) is able to induce apoptosis despite the presence of these inhibitory proteins.

This is an important oncolytic property of CDV: this virus is capable of killing canine lymphoma cells. Oncoproteins E6 and E7 still leave p53 inactive, but they are not able to avoid the activation of caspases induced from the stress of viral infection. These oncolytic properties provided a promising link between CDV and lymphoma apoptosis, which can lead to development of alternative treatment methods for both canine lymphoma and human non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Defects in the cell cycle are thought to be responsible for the resistance to chemotherapy or radiation by certain tumor cells, so a virus that can induce apoptosis despite defects in the cell cycle is useful for cancer treatment.

Hyperactive Apoptosis

On the other hand, loss of control of cell death (resulting in excess apoptosis) can lead to neurodegenerative diseases, hematologic diseases, and tissue damage. It is to note that neurons that rely on mitochondrial respiration undergo apoptosis in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s  and Parkinson’s (an observation known as the Inverse Warburg hypothesis ).

Moreover, there is an inverse epidemiological comorbidity between neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. The progression of HIV is directly linked to excess, unregulated apoptosis. In a healthy individual, the number of CD4+ lymphocytes is in balance with the cells generated by the bone marrow; however, in HIV-positive patients, this balance is lost due to an inability of the bone marrow to regenerate CD4+ cells.

In the case of HIV, CD4+ lymphocytes die at an accelerated rate through uncontrolled apoptosis, when stimulated. At the molecular level, hyperactive apoptosis can be caused by defects in signaling pathways that regulate the Bcl-2 family proteins. Increased expression of apoptotic proteins such as BIM, or their decreased proteolysis, leads to cell death, and can cause a number of pathologies, depending on the cells where excessive activity of BIM occurs.

Cancer cells can escape apoptosis through mechanisms that suppress BIM expression or by increased proteolysis of BIM.

Viral Infection

Viral induction of apoptosis occurs when one or several cells of a living organism are infected with a virus, leading to cell death. Cell death in organisms is necessary for the normal development of cells and the cell cycle maturation. It is also important in maintaining the regular functions and activities of cells.

Viruses can trigger apoptosis of infected cells via a range of mechanisms including:

  • Receptor binding
  • Activation of protein kinase R (PKR)
  • Interaction with p53
  • Expression of viral proteins coupled to MHC proteins on the surface of the infected cell, allowing recognition by cells of the immune system (such as Natural Killer and cytotoxic T cells) that then induce the infected cell to undergo apoptosis.

Canine distemper virus (CDV) is known to cause apoptosis in central nervous system and lymphoid tissue of infected dogs in vivo and in vitro. Apoptosis caused by CDV is typically induced via the extrinsic pathway, which activates caspases that disrupt cellular function and eventually leads to the cells death. In normal cells, CDV activates caspase-8 first, which works as the initiator protein followed by the executioner protein caspase-3.

However, apoptosis induced by CDV in HeLa cells does not involve the initiator protein caspase-8. HeLa cell apoptosis caused by CDV follows a different mechanism than that in vero cell lines.

This change in the caspase cascade suggests CDV induces apoptosis via the intrinsic pathway, excluding the need for the initiator caspase-8. The executioner protein is instead activated by the internal stimuli caused by viral infection not a caspase cascade.

The Oropouche virus (OROV) is found in the family Bunyaviridae. The study of apoptosis brought on by Bunyaviridae was initiated in 1996, when it was observed that apoptosis was induced by the La Crosse virus into the kidney cells of baby hamsters and into the brains of baby mice.

OROV is a disease that is transmitted between humans by the biting midge (Culicoides paraensis). It is referred to as a zoonotic arbovirus and causes febrile illness, characterized by the onset of a sudden fever known as Oropouche fever.

The Oropouche virus also causes disruption in cultured cells – cells that are cultivated in distinct and specific conditions. An example of this can be seen in HeLa cells, whereby the cells begin to degenerate shortly after they are infected.

With the use of gel electrophoresis, it can be observed that OROV causes DNA fragmentation in HeLa cells. It can be interpreted by counting, measuring, and analyzing the cells of the Sub/G1 cell population. When HeLA cells are infected with OROV, the cytochrome C is released from the membrane of the mitochondria, into the cytosol of the cells. This type of interaction shows that apoptosis is activated via an intrinsic pathway.

In order for apoptosis to occur within OROV, viral uncoating, viral internalization, along with the replication of cells is necessary. Apoptosis in some viruses is activated by extracellular stimuli. However, studies have demonstrated that the OROV infection causes apoptosis to be activated through intracellular stimuli and involves the mitochondria.

Many viruses encode proteins that can inhibit apoptosis. Several viruses encode viral homologs of Bcl-2. These homologs can inhibit proapoptotic proteins such as BAX and BAK, which are essential for the activation of apoptosis.

Examples of viral Bcl-2 proteins include the Epstein-Barr virus BHRF1 protein and the adenovirus E1B 19K protein. Some viruses express caspase inhibitors that inhibit caspase activity and an example is the CrmA protein of cowpox viruses. Whilst a number of viruses can block the effects of TNF and Fas. For example, the M-T2 protein of myxoma viruses can bind TNF preventing it from binding the TNF receptor and inducing a response.

Furthermore, many viruses express p53 inhibitors that can bind p53 and inhibit its transcriptional transactivation activity. As a consequence, p53 cannot induce apoptosis, since it cannot induce the expression of proapoptotic proteins. The adenovirus E1B-55K protein and the hepatitis B virus HBx protein are examples of viral proteins that can perform such a function.

Viruses can remain intact from apoptosis in particular in the latter stages of infection. They can be exported in the apoptotic bodies that pinch off from the surface of the dying cell, and the fact that they are engulfed by phagocytes prevents the initiation of a host response. This favours the spread of the virus.

Top Image: Egelberg CC BY-SA 3.0