On the mechanism of ionic regulation of apoptosis: would the Na+/K+-ATPase please stand up?

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Abstract

Apoptosis is an active process with distinct features including loss of cell volume, chromatin condensation, internucleosomal DNA fragmentation, and apoptotic body formation. Among the classical characteristics that define apoptosis, the loss of cell volume has become a very important component of the programmed cell death process. Changes in cell volume result from alterations in the homeostasis of ions and in particular the movement of Na+ and K+ ions. Most living cells have a high concentration of intracellular K+ and a low concentration of intracellular Na+. This is in contrast to the outside of the cell, where there is a high concentration of extracellular Na+ and a low concentration of extracellular K+. Thus a concentration gradient exists for the loss and gain of intracellular K+ and Na+, respectively. This gradient is maintained through the activity of various ionic channels and transporters, but predominantly the activity of the Na+/K+-ATPase. During apoptosis, there is compelling evidence indicating an early increase in intracellular Na+ followed by a decrease in both intracellular K+ and Na+ suggesting a regulatory role for these cations during both the initial signalling, and the execution phase of apoptosis. Recent studies have shown that the Na+/K+-ATPase is involved in controlling perturbations of Na+ and K+ homeostasis during apoptosis, and that anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 and Bcl-XL molecules influence these ionic fluxes. Finally, understanding the regulation or deregulation of ionic homeostasis during apoptosis is critical to facilitate the treatment of cardiovascular, neurological, and renal diseases where apoptosis is known to play a major role.

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