Cancer’s little helper

A menacing shadow looms large over the body. Lessons we’ve learned from the eternal struggle of organism against cell are etched into the farthest corners of the genome, patches on top of patches, shoring up our weaknesses for the next time the conflict erupts. And yet, even with a standing army dedicated to repairing DNA, monitoring the cell cycle, initiating programmed cell death, and keeping cells locked in their own places, it’s still not enough to stave off cancer forever.

Really, the key to cancer’s effectiveness is that it’s an inside job. It starts with a cell very nearly like any other, just with greater ambitions, expressed as mutations in its genome. And it doesn’t need anything very special to achieve its goals, because everything a cancer requires to grow and metastasize can be found by twisting the body’s normal programs to its own ends. Numerous pawns and bit-players are taken advantage of in this way, but there’s one system in particular that plays the unwitting accomplice, a class of proteins that are eager to please and want nothing more than to help: the heat shock proteins.

Don’t be fooled by the name–while they were first discovered in connection with the cellular


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