Scientific American Magazine
- July 2, 2008
Could Our Own Proteins Be Used to Help Us Fight Cancer?
Protective heat shock proteins present in every cell have long been known to
counteract stress. Newly recognized roles in cancer and immunity make
them potential therapeutic allies
By Pramod K. Srivastava
In 1962 someone at the Genetics Institute in Pavia, Italy, turned up the temperature in an
incubator holding fruit flies. When Ferruccio Ritossa, then a young geneticist, examined the cells
of these “heat shocked” flies, he noticed that their chromosomes had puffed up at discrete
locations. The puffy appearance was a known sign that genes were being activated in those
regions to give rise to their encoded proteins, so those sites of activity became known as the heat
The effect was reproducible but initially considered to be unique to the fruit fly. It took another 15
years before the proteins generated when these chromosome puffs appear were detected in
mammals and other forms of life. In what is certainly among the most absorbing stories in
contemporary biology, heat shock proteins (HSPs) have since been recognized as occupying a
central role in all life—not just at the level of cells but of organisms and whole populations.
Indeed, these ubiquitous molecules are among the most ancient survival mechanisms to have
been conserved throughout evolution. They have even been shown to facilitate evolution itself.
Produced in response to stressful conditions, including (but not limited to) heat, HSPs help
individual cells to cope by keeping cellular processes working smoothly in the face of adversity. In
the past decade scientists have realized that HSPs also play additional roles in higher organisms,
such as humans. They are integral to our immune defenses against cancer and pathogens and
might therefore prove valuable in developing a wide variety of new medicines and vaccines.
To understand how these versatile proteins can be harnessed therapeutically, it is helpful to look
at the diverse ways they perform their core job, which is to act as “chaperones” for other proteins.
Like the chaperoning of people, the work of HSPs has two objectives: to inhibit undesirable
interactions and to promote desirable ones, so that a stable and productive bond forms between
Proteins inside a cell often have just one or a very few correct “mates” with which they can
interact effectively—for example, a receptor and its ligand, which behave like a lock and key,
respectively. The ligand has little effect on other receptor types, and the receptor is typically
activated only by its particular ligand or molecules very close to it in structure. In contrast, HSPs
tend to associate with a wide range of “client” proteins, allowing the HSPs to perform a dizzying
array of jobs. These can include helping newly formed amino acid chains to fold into their proper
protein shapes, dismantling them after they have been damaged, escorting proteins to their