The transcription factor signal transducer and activator of transcription (STAT)3 mediates the functions of cytokines, growth factors, and oncogenes under both physiological and pathological conditions. Uncontrolled/constitutive STAT3 activity is often detected in tumors of different types, where its role is mostly that of an oncogene, contributing in multiple ways to tumor transformation, growth, and progression. For this reason, many laboratories and pharmaceutical companies are making efforts to develop specific inhibitors. However, STAT3 has also been shown to act as a tumor suppressor in a number of cases, suggesting that its activity is strongly context-specific. Here, we discuss the bases that can explain the multiple roles of this factor in both physiological and pathological contexts. In particular, we focus on the following four features: (i) the distinct properties of the STAT3α and β isoforms; (ii) the multiple post-translational modifications (phosphorylation on tyrosine or serine, acetylation and methylation on different residues, and oxidation and glutathionylation) that can affect its activities downstream of multiple different signals; (iii) the non-canonical functions in the mitochondria, contributing to the maintenance of energy homeostasis under stress conditions; and (iv) the recently discovered functions in the endoplasmic reticulum, where STAT3 contributes to the regulation of calcium homeostasis, energy production, and apoptosis.
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