Intermediate filament (IF) proteins make up the largest family of cytoskeletal proteins in metazoans, and are traditionally known for their roles in fostering structural integrity in cells and tissues. Remarkably, individual IF genes are tightly regulated in a fashion that reflects the type of tissue, its developmental and differentiation stages, and biological context. In cancer, IF proteins serve as diagnostic markers, as tumor cells partially retain their original signature expression of IF proteins. However, there are also characteristic alterations in IF gene expression and protein regulation. The use of high throughput analytics suggests that tumor-associated alterations in IF gene expression have prognostic value. Parallel research is also showing that IF proteins directly and significantly impact several key cellular properties, including proliferation, death, migration, and invasiveness, with a demonstrated impact on the development, progression, and characteristics of various tumors. In this review, we draw from recent studies focused on three IF proteins most associated with cancer (keratins, vimentin, and nestin) to highlight how several “hallmarks of cancer” described by Hanahan and Weinberg are impacted by IF proteins. The evidence already in hand establishes that IF proteins function beyond their classical roles as markers and serve as effectors of tumorigenesis.
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