Much of the damage inflicted during traumatic injuries is in the form of cell death called necrosis, which long was believed to be a chaotic, irreversible process.
"For years, we believed that cell death related to a catastrophic insult such as a stroke or heart attack that deprives tissue of oxygen couldn't really be treated," said Gary Silverman, professor of cellular biology and physiology at Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
"So we focused on strategies to prevent further damage by restoring blood flow as quickly as possible with clot-busters and surgery."
But thanks to a series of experiments on worms, Silverman and his colleagues discovered that certain enzymes can kill a cell and possibly overwhelm its defenses following a stress or injury.
The findings suggest that if scientists could find a way to enhance the production of natural inhibitors which combat these enzymes, they could prevent cells dying.
"Our research indicates that necrosis can be interrupted and possibly repaired, even after the injury process is well underway," he said of the study, which appears in the journal "Cell."
The finding has far-reaching implications in the field of emergency medicine, and also in the treatment of the degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, Silverman said.