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Columbia Scientist Wins Beckman Young Investigator Award
for Research into Novel Methods of Cell Death

Brent Stockwell, Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Chemistry, has been selected as a 2007 Beckman Young Investigator for his research into undiscovered mechanisms controlling cell death.

Brent Stockwell
Brent Stockwell

The award is for $300,000 over three years. Professor Stockwell is one of only 16 U.S. researchers chosen this year. The Beckman Foundation Awards, begun in 1991, are designed to offer research support to promising faculty members engaged in the early stages of academic careers in the chemical and life sciences.

“We are using chemical tools in an effort to discover new types of programmed cell death mechanisms,” Stockwell explained.  “The Beckman Award will aid us significantly in realizing that goal.”  Dr. Stockwell, along with two graduate students, Adam Wolpaw and Nidhi Gangadhar, have developed an experimental approach to discovering such novel forms of cell death and elucidating the mechanisms governing their operation.  If their suspicions are well-founded, these investigations might lead to significant new insights into the mortality of living systems.

Currently there are two main processes thought to regulate cell death, but Stockwell says evidence now suggests other processes must exist which also govern cell death. His goal is to find them and explain them.  Most cell death is thought to occur via apoptosis or necrosis. With apoptosis, a genetic program dictates when a given cell will die. In necrosis, a cell dies when it loses homeostasis (the ability to regulate itself and maintain its functions). 

Stockwell explained that his suspicions for the existence of other processes governing cell death are based on several lines of evidence. First, other forms of cell destruction exist that are distinct from the known cell death methods. For example, the axons of neurons degenerate via a process known as “Wallerian Degeneration”, which is bio-chemically distinct from known forms of cell death. Second, there are cases in which cells die through a process unrelated to apoptosis or necrosis. For example, some neurons in patients with Huntington Disease die through a mysterious form of cell death called “dark cell death” which is unrelated to known forms of cell death.

However, because there are so few of the “other forms” of dying cells available, they are almost impossible to study.  Dr. Stockwell believes that there may be several widespread, but little studied forms of cell death such as dark cell death that have been ignored due their experimental intractability.

A few more esoteric proposals for cell death exists, including ‘autophagic cell death,’ a process whereby cells essentially self-digest deadly cellular material, paraptosis, the formation of massive empty spaces, called vacuoles,  and mitotic catastrophe, involving failed cell division. However, these phenomena are rare and still controversial in terms of their validity as genuine and widespread cell death programs.

- Written by David Poratta

Published: June 06, 2007
Last modified: Nov 14, 2007