Delineating the mechanisms that drive hepatic injury and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) progression is critical for development of novel treatments for recurrent and advanced HCC but also for the development of diagnostic and preventive strategies. Heat shock protein 70 (HSP70) acts in concert with several cochaperones and nucleotide exchange factors and plays an essential role in protein quality control that increases survival by protecting cells against environmental stressors. Specifically, the HSP70-mediated response has been implicated in the pathogenesis of cancer, but the specific mechanisms by which HSP70 may support malignant cell transformation remains to be fully elucidated. Here, we show that genetic ablation of HSP70 markedly impairs HCC initiation and progression by distinct but overlapping pathways. This includes the potentiation of the carcinogen-induced DNA damage response, at the tumor initiation stage, to increase the p53-dependent surveillance response leading to the cell cycle exit or death of genomically damaged differentiated pericentral hepatocytes, and this may also prevent their conversion into more proliferating HCC progenitor cells. Subsequently, activation of a mitogen-activated protein kinase/extracellular signal-regulated kinase (MAPK/ERK) negative feedback pathway diminishes oncogenic signals, thereby attenuating premalignant cell transformation and tumor progression. Modulation of HSP70 function may be a strategy for interfering with oncogenic signals driving liver cell transformation and tumor progression, thus providing an opportunity for human cancer control.

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