The principal biological role of mitochondria is to supply energy to cells; although intriguingly, evolution has bestowed another essential function upon these cellular organelles: under physiological stress, mitochondria become the cornerstone of apoptotic cell death. Specifically, mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization (MOMP) allows cell death factors such as cytochrome c to be released into the cytoplasm, thus inducing caspase activation and the eventual destruction of essential cellular components. Proteins of the B-cell lymphoma 2 (BCL-2) family control the tightly regulated pathway that causes MOMP. The equilibrium between pro-survival and pro-apoptotic members of the BCL-2 family dictates the fate of cells, the homeostasis of organs and, by extension, the health of whole organisms. Dysregulation of this equilibrium is involved in a large number of diseases such as cancer, autoimmunity and neurodegenerative conditions. Modulating the activity of the BCL-2 family of proteins with small molecules or peptides is an attractive but challenging therapeutic goal. This review highlights the latest developments in this field and provides evidence that this strategy is likely to have a positive effect on the treatment of still poorly addressed medical conditions.
This article is part of a themed issue on Mitochondrial Pharmacology: Energy, Injury & Beyond. To view the other articles in this issue visit http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bph.2014.171.issue-8