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Open Access Hypothesis

Apoptosis and signalling in acid sphingomyelinase deficient cells

Dan J Sillence

Author Affiliations

Glycobiology Institute, Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QU, UK

BMC Cell Biology 2001, 2:24  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-2-24

Published: 12 November 2001

Abstract

Background

Recent evidence suggests that the activation of a non-specific lipid scramblase during apoptosis induces the flipping of sphingomyelin from the cell surface to the cytoplasmic leaftet of the plasma membrane. Inner leaflet sphingomyelin is then cleaved to ceramide by a neutral sphingomyelinase. The production of this non-membrane forming lipid induces blebbing of the plasma membrane to aid rapid engulfment by professional phagocytes. However contrary evidence suggests that cells which are deficient in acid sphingomyelinase are defective in apoptosis signalling. This data has been interpreted as support for the activation of acid sphingomyelinase as an early signal in apoptosis.

Hypothesis

An alternative explanation is put forward whereby the accumulation of intracellular sphingomyelin in sphingomyelinase deficient cells leads to the formation of intracellular rafts which lead to the sequestration of important signalling molecules that are normally present on the cell surface where they perform their function.

Testing the hypothesis

It is expected that the subcellular distribution of important signalling molecules is altered in acid sphingomyelinase deficient cells, leading to their sequestration in late endosomes / lysosomes. Other sphingolipid storage diseases such as Niemann-Pick type C which have normal acid sphingomyelinase activity would also be expected to show the same phenotype.

Implications of the hypothesis

If true the hypothesis would provide a mechanism for the pathology of the sphingolipid storage diseases at the cellular level and also have implications for the role of ceramide in apoptosis.