There is now compelling evidence that members of the family of small heat shock proteins (HSP) can be secreted by a variety of different types of cells. Secretion of small HSP may at times represent altruistic delivery of supporting and stabilizing factors from one cell to another. A probably more general effect of extracellular small HSP, however, is exerted by their ability to activate macrophages and macrophage-like cells. When doing so, small HSP induce an immune-regulatory state of activation, stimulating macrophages to suppress inflammation. For this reason, small HSP deserve consideration as broadly applicable therapeutic agents for inflammatory disorders. In one particular case, however, adaptive immune responses to the small HSP itself may subvert the protective quality of the innate immune response it triggers. This situation only applies to alpha B-crystallin, and is unique for humans as well. In this special case, local concentrations of alpha B-crystallin determine the balance between protective innate responses and destructive adaptive responses, the latter of which are held responsible for the development of multiple sclerosis lesions. This article is part of a Directed Issue entitled: Small HSPs in physiology and pathology. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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