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Ann N Y Acad Sci. Author manuscript; available in PMC Jul 22, 2011.
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PMCID: PMC3141289

Signal Transducer and Activator of Transcription-3, Inflammation, and Cancer

How Intimate Is the Relationship?


Signal transducer and activator of transcription-3 (STAT-3) is one of six members of a family of transcription factors. It was discovered almost 15 years ago as an acute-phase response factor. This factor has now been associated with inflammation, cellular transformation, survival, proliferation, invasion, angiogenesis, and metastasis of cancer. Various types of carcinogens, radiation, viruses, growth factors, oncogenes, and inflammatory cytokines have been found to activate STAT-3. STAT-3 is constitutively active in most tumor cells but not in normal cells. Phosphorylation of STAT-3 at tyrosine 705 leads to its dimerization, nuclear translocation, DNA binding, and gene transcription. The phosphorylation of STAT-3 at serine 727 may regulate its activity negatively or positively. STAT-3 regulates the expression of genes that mediate survival (survivin, bcl-xl, mcl-1, cellular FLICE-like inhibitory protein), proliferation (c-fos, c-myc, cyclin D1), invasion (matrix metalloproteinase-2), and angiogenesis (vascular endothelial growth factor). STAT-3 activation has also been associated with both chemoresistance and radioresistance. STAT-3 mediates these effects through its collaboration with various other transcription factors, including nuclear factor-κB, hypoxia-inducible factor-1, and peroxisome proliferator activated receptor-γ. Because of its critical role in tumorigenesis, inhibitors of this factor’s activation are being sought for both prevention and therapy of cancer. This has led to identification of small peptides, oligonucleotides, and small molecules as potential STAT-3 inhibitors. Several of these small molecules are chemo-preventive agents derived from plants. This review discusses the intimate relationship between STAT-3, inflammation, and cancer in more detail.

Keywords: STAT-3, inflammation, cancer, chemoresistance


Signal transducer and activator of transcription (STAT)-3 is one of the members of a family of transcription factors. It was first identified in 1994 as a DNA-binding factor that selectively binds to the IL-6-responsive element in the promoter of acute-phase genes from IL-6-stimulated hepatocytes.1 STAT-3 was also independently identified as a DNA-binding protein in response to epidermal growth factor.2 The gene that encodes STAT-3 is located on chromosome 17q21. The 92-kDa protein is 770 amino acids long with sequential N-terminal coiled-coil domain, DNA-binding domain, a linker, SH2 domain, and C-terminal transactivation domain. The latter contains a tyrosine residue at position 705 and a serine residue at position 727, which undergoes phosphorylation when activated (Fig. 1).

Figure 1
Signaling pathway leading to signal transducer and activator of transcription (STAT)-3 activation (see text for definitions of abbreviations).

STAT-3 is activated by many cytokines and growth factors, including epidermal growth factor,3 platelet-derived growth factor,4 and IL-61 as well as by oncogenic proteins, such as Src5 and Ras6 (Table 1). In addition numerous carcinogens, such as cigarette smoke7 and tumor promoters, have been identified that can activate STAT-3.8,9

Activators and Inhibitors of Signal Transducer and Activator of Transcription (STAT)-3

The activation of STAT-3 is regulated by phosphorylation of tyrosine 705 by receptor and nonreceptor protein tyrosine kinases (Table 2). These include epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) kinase,92 Src,5 Janus-activated kinases (JAK),9395 and extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK).96 The phosphorylation of STAT-3 in the cytoplasm leads to its dimerization, translocation into the nucleus, and DNA binding; as a result genes that regulate cell proliferation, differentiation, and apoptosis are expressed. In addition, numerous serine kinases have been implicated in the phosphorylation of STAT-3 at serine 727. These include protein kinase C (PKC),97 mitogen-activated protein kinases, and CDK5.98 PKC-ε has been shown to interact with STAT-3 directly and phosphorylate serine 727,99 which maximizes its transcriptional activity.100,101

Intracellular Modulators of STAT-3 Activity

Besides phosphorylation on tyrosine and serine sites within the carboxyl-terminal region, STAT-3 is also acetylated on a single lysine residue 685 by histone acetyltransferase p300142 (Table 2). STAT-3 acetylation is reversible by type I histone deacetylase (HDAC). The acetylation of STAT-3 was found to be critical for it to form stable dimers, which are required for cytokine-stimulated DNA binding and transcriptional regulation.

STAT-3 activation is negatively regulated through numerous mechanisms (Table 2). These involve the suppressors of cytokine signaling (SOCS),136 protein inhibitor of activated STAT (PIAS),105 protein phosphatases,173 and ubiquitination-dependent proteosomal degradation174 (Table 2). The SOCS proteins were shown to bind to the JAK activation loop as pseudosubstrate inhibitors through their SH2 domain, thereby blocking subsequent signaling that requires phosphorylation and activation of STAT-3.175 Eight SOCS proteins with similar structures have been identified so far.176 SOCS-3 negatively regulates the gp130-STAT-3 pathway in mouse skin wound healing, suggesting that STAT-3 is required for wound healing.177 Different SOCS family members, however, have distinct mechanisms of inhibition of JAK/STAT signaling. Recently, the involvement of SOCS-1 in carcinogenesis has been reported.178 Frequent hypermethylation in CpG islands of the functional SOCS-3 promoter correlates with its transcription silencing in cell lines (lung cancer, breast cancer, and mesothelioma) and primary lung cancer tissue samples.179181 Restoration of SOCS-3 in lung cancer cells where SOCS-3 was silenced by methylation resulted in the downregulation of active STAT-3, induction of apoptosis, and growth suppression.181 Methylation silencing of SOCS-3 is an important mechanism of constitutive activation of the STAT-3 pathway in cancer pathogenesis.178,179

In contrast to SOCS, the PIAS-3 are nuclear factors that are able to interact with phos-phorylated STAT-3 and block transcription.105 Smad4 has been shown to suppress the tyrosine phosphorylation of STAT-3 in pancreatic cancer cells.182

STAT-3 activation is also negatively regulated by various protein tyrosine phosphatases, including CD45,123 PTEN,124 SHP-1,183 SHP-2184 (Table 2).

The ubiquitin-proteasome pathway is responsible for selective degradation of shortlived cellular proteins and is critical for the regulation of many cellular processes. STAT-3 has been shown to undergo degradation through this pathway.174,185,186 In IL-6-dependent KT-3 cells, the transcription factor was found to be conjugated by exogenous biotinylated Ub and degraded in a proteasome-dependent manner.174 Additionally, caspases have been found to directly cleave STAT-3.187 STAT-3 cleavage was accompanied by reductions in STAT-3– DNA binding, STAT-3-driven reporter protein (luciferase) activity, and the expression of selected STAT-3-dependent genes and correlated with increased sensitivity to apoptotic stimuli.

The ablation of STAT-3 leads to embryonic lethality,188 and tissue-specific ablation of the transcription factor yields important defects in hepatocytes,189 macrophages,190 keratinocytes,191 and thymic or mammary epithelial cells.192

STAT-3 is an oncogenic protein that is constitutively activated in many human cancers. For instance, in 30–60% of primary breast cancers, STAT-3 is constitutively active.193 Constitutive activation of STAT-3 has also been reported in several other primary cancers, in tumor cell lines, and in many oncogene-transformed cells. Inactivation of STAT-3 in most of these cell lines leads to inhibition of cell proliferation. The critical role of this factor in cancer is indicated by the fact that β4 integrin actively contributes to the initiation, growth, and invasion of ErbB2-induced mammary tumors in transgenic mice by promoting the activation of STAT-3.194 The evidence below shows that STAT-3 activation is intimately connected with all aspects of tumorigenesis.

STAT-3 Activation Mediates Inflammation

Several lines of evidence suggest that STAT-3 is a mediator of inflammation.195 First, STAT-3 was initially discovered as an acute-phase response protein, thus suggesting its link to inflammation. Second, most proinflammatory agents have been shown to activate this factor. IL-6 is a major mediator of inflammation and mediates its effects through the activation of the STAT-3 pathway.2 Similarly, tumor promoters, lipopolysaccharides, and cigarette smoke can activate the STAT-3 pathway.7,196 Third, the DNA binding for STAT-3 in the promoter of acute-phase proteins was found to compete with that of NF-κB, another pro-inflammatory transcription factor.139 Fourth, STAT-3 has been shown to regulate NF-κB recruitment to the IL-12p40 promoter in dendritic cells.197 Fifth, recently it was shown that IL-11 and its glycoprotein 130 (gp130) receptor in inflammation-associated gastric epithelial cell oncogenic transformation is mediated by and dependent on increased activation of STAT-3.198 Sixth, in some cell types IL-6-induced STAT-3 activation has been shown to be dependent on cyclooxygenase 2, a pro-inflammatory enzyme.199 All this evidence supports the role of the STAT-3 pathway in inflammation.

STAT-3 Activation Can Transform Cells

The transformation of cells by various oncogenes, protein tyrosine kinases, and viruses accompanies the activation of STAT-3.200 Yu et al. showed that transformation of cells by src protein kinase is mediated through the activation of STAT-3.5,201 Similarly the transformation of T cells by human T-cell lymphotropic virus I was also mediated through the activation of STAT-3.95 Hepatitis C virus core protein has also been shown to transform the cells through activation of STAT-3.30 The STAT-3 activation is induced by v-Fps; by polyoma virus middle T antigen, which activates Src family kinases; and by v-Sis, which acts as a ligand for the platelet-derived growth factor receptor.92 STAT-3 signaling is also required for hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor-Met-mediated tumorigenes.202 Moreover, a constitutively activated form of STAT-3 induces cell transformation, growth in soft agar, and tumors in nude mice, further confirming the importance of the activated form detected in tumors. Thus, STAT-3 is considered an oncogene.203

STAT-3 Activation Can Suppress Apoptosis

Evidence indicates that oncogenic transformation of the cells leads to activation of STAT-3, which then provides the survival signal. Conditional inactivation of STAT-3 shows that it has proapoptotic functions during mammary gland involution.192 In most cells, STAT-3 activation can suppress apoptosis. These effects are mediated through the expression of various cell survival gene products that are regulated by STAT-3. These include bcl-xl,204,205 bcl-2,206 survivin,207 Mcl-1,208 and cIAP2.209 Additionally, most tumor cells that exhibit constitutive activation of STAT-3 also express these cell survival gene products.210,211 Thus, suppression of STAT-3 activation can suppress the expression of all these cell survival gene products and potentiate apoptosis.212 The downregulation of STAT-3 also leads to expression of fas protein, which can promote apoptosis.213

STAT-3 Activation Can Lead to Cellular Proliferation

STAT-3 activation has also been linked with proliferation of tumor cells. This effect of STAT-3 is mediated through its ability to induce the expression of cyclin D1.214 STAT-3 has also been shown to upregulate the expression of several growth-promoting genes, such as myc215 and pim-1.216 The proapoptotic factors, such as Fas, are downmodulated by STAT-3 activation.213 There are other reports, however, which suggest that this transcription factor can activate the expression of the cell cycle inhibitor p21(waf1),217 suggesting that STAT-3 can also block cell cycle progression and prevent abnormal cell proliferation. During cellular transformation, however, phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase/Akt pathway was found to inhibit the transcriptional activation of the p21(waf1) gene by STAT-3 proteins without altering the regulation of the myc promoter.218

STAT-3 Activation Can Mediate Cellular Invasion

Numerous reports indicate STAT-3 activation plays a major role in tumor cell invasion, and inhibition of STAT-3 reduces invasion.182,219221 STAT-3 activation regulates the expression of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-2 and MMP-1, which then mediate tumor invasion and metastasis.222,223 STAT-3 upregulates the transcription of MMP-2 through direct interaction with the MMP-2 promoter. Furthermore, blockade of activated STAT-3 in highly metastatic cells significantly suppresses the invasiveness of the tumor cells, inhibits tumor growth, and prevents metastasis in nude mice. Also, overexpression of phosphorylated STAT-3 correlates with the invasion and metastasis of cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma.224 STAT-3, however, is also known to upregulate tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinase (TIMP)-1, a cytokine known to block metalloproteinases and decrease invasiveness in certain cancer cell types.225 STAT-3 also controls the expression of the MUC1 gene, which can mediate tumor invasion.226 Thus, STAT-3 mediates tumor invasion through numerous mechanisms.

STAT-3 Activation Can Mediate Angiogenesis and Metastasis

One of the first pieces of evidence to suggest that STAT-3 is linked with angiogenesis was from granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor-induced angiogenetic activity in chick chorioallantoic membrane.227 It was shown that constitutive STAT-3 activity upregulates vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) expression and tumor angiogenesis.228 Most tumor cells that exhibit constitutively active STAT-3 also express VEGF.229,230 Thus, downmodulation of STAT-3 activation can suppress the expression of VEGF and inhibit angiogenesis. Indeed, Li et al. found an inhibition of growth and metastasis of human hepatocellular carcinoma by antisense oligonucleotide targeting of STAT-3.231 The metastasis of human melanoma to brain was also linked to STAT-3 activation.232 Besides VEGF, it has been shown that TWIST, another mediator of tumor metastasis, is regulated by STAT-3.233

Role of STAT-3 in Carcinogenesis

STAT-3 can mediate both the tumor initiation and the tumor promotion phases of carcinogenesis. While deletion of STAT-3 suppressed skin carcinogenesis,9 forced expression enhanced malignant progression.234,235 STAT-3-deficient mice were completely resistant to skin tumor development when 9,10-dimethylbenz-[a-]anthracene was used as the initiator and 12-O-tetradecanolyphorbol-13-acetate as the promoter.9 Activation of STAT-3 has also been shown to be an early event in tobacco-chewing-mediated oral carcinogenesis in human samples.32 The activation of STAT-3 has also been linked with hepatocarcino-genesis, as suggested by SOCS-3 deficiency in mice.236

Role of STAT-3 in Chemoresistance and Radioresistance

Activation of STAT-3 has been linked with resistance of tumor cells to chemotherapeutic agents.80,237 Work from our laboratory and others have shown constitutive activation of STAT-3 in multiple myeloma can mediate chemoresistance.238 This is mediated through the upregulation of antiapoptotic gene products regulated by STAT-3, as shown in metastatic breast cancer cells.239 Thus, downmodulation of STAT-3 can overcome chemoresistance.85

The resistance of tumor cells to γ radiation has also been associated with STAT-3 activation. STAT-3-deleted B cells are highly susceptible to irradiation.240 In vivo experiments with gene-targeted mice showed that IL-6 and, to a lesser extent, IL-10 are the relevant stimuli that combine with B-cell receptor (BCR) ligands to promote B-1 cell radioresistance. STAT-3 promotes cell survival in response to selected growth factors and is activated by combined BCR cross-linking and IL-6 (IL-10). Importantly, STAT-3−/− B-1 cells become susceptible to irradiation, indicating that STAT-3 activation by BCR accounts for the inherent radioresistance of peritoneal B-1 B cells. Kim et al. showed that DN-STAT-3 and DN-survivin together result in the greatest radiosensitization of MDA-MB-231 (breast cancer cell line), decreasing angiogenesis, and cell survival.241

Chemopreventive Agents Inhibit STAT-3 Activation

Several natural agents known to be chemo-preventive are quite effective in suppressing STAT-3 activation (Table 1). These include curcumin,73,242 resveratrol,85 ursolic acid,87 guggulsterone,80 capsaicin,69 cucurbitacin,72 indirubin,81 flavopiridol,77 epigallocatechin gallate,75 CDDO-Me (methyl-2-cyano-3,12-dioxooleana-1,9-dien-28-oate),70 emodin,76 silibinin,86 and chalcone.71 How these phytochemicals suppress STAT-3 activation has been investigated. For instance, guggulsterone, ursolic acid, and capsaicin have been shown to transcriptionally upregulate the expression of SHP2, which leads to inactivation of STAT-3.69,80,87 Other mechanisms have also been described. For instance, luteolin has been shown to promote the degradation in STAT-3 in human hepatoma cells.243 Indirubin was found to inhibit STAT-3 activation through inhibition of Src kinase activity.81


This description, overall, shows that STAT-3 activation plays a very intimate role in tumorigenesis. Inhibitors of the STAT-3 pathway thus have enormous potential in the treatment of cancer. Whether STAT-3 can be exploited as a prognostic factor in human cancers remains to be examined.


This work was supported by a grant from the Clayton Foundation for Research (to B.B.A.). A core grant from the National Institutes of Health (CA-16 672), and a program project grant from National Institute of Health (NIH CA-124787-01A2).


Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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