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Keywords:

  • cancer;
  • chaperone;
  • combination therapy;
  • drug discovery;
  • extracellular Hsp90;
  • Hsp90;
  • protein activation

On the surface heat shock protein 90 (Hsp90) is an unlikely drug target for the treatment of any disease, let alone cancer. Hsp90 is highly conserved and ubiquitously expressed in all cells. There are two major isoforms α and β encoded by distinct genes and together they may constitute 1%–3% of the cellular protein. Deletion of the protein is embryonic lethal and there are no recognized polymorphisms suggesting an association or causal relationship with any human disease. With respect to cancer, the proteins absence from two recent high profile articles, ‘Hallmarks of cancer: the next generation’ [Hanahan & Weinberg (2011) Cell 144, 646–674] and ‘Comprehensive molecular portraits of human breast tumours’ [Koboldt et al. (2012) Nature] underlines the perception that it is an unlikely bona fide target to treat this disease. Yet, to date, there are 17 distinct Hsp90 inhibitors in clinical trials for multiple indications in cancer. The protein has been championed for over 20 years by the National Cancer Institute (Bethesda, MD, USA) as a cancer target since the discovery of the antitumor activity of the natural product geldanamycin. This review aims to look at the conundrum of why Hsp90 can even be considered a druggable target for the treatment of cancer. We propose that in contrast to the majority of chemotherapeutics our growing armamentarium of investigational Hsp90 drugs represents an elegant choice that offers real hope in the long-term treatment of certain cancers.