Heat treatment and various other stresses render tumor cells resistant to cytotoxicity mediated by tumor necrosis factors (TNFs). Here, we elucidate the molecular basis of this phenomenon by demonstrating that the major heat shock protein, hsp70, protects tumor cells from TNF cytotoxicity even in the absence of stress. The human hsp70 gene was stably introduced into highly TNF-sensitive WEHI-S tumor cells both in the sense and antisense orientation. All clones constitutively expressing the exogenous human hsp70 gene were protected from TNF-mediated killing approximately 1000-fold. Remarkably, the growth of one clone was actually stimulated by low concentrations of TNF. Moreover, a clone expressing antisense hsp70 RNA was rendered extremely sensitive to TNFs. Hsp70-mediated protection from TNF cytotoxicity was confirmed in transient expression experiments employing retroviral vectors. Changes in cellular sensitivity to TNF were not associated with alterations in the binding of TNF to its receptors. Neither the transfection procedure itself nor overexpression of the low molecular weight heat shock protein, hsp27, had any effect on cellular susceptibility to TNFs. Our data suggest that hsp70 may increase the oncogenic potential of some tumor cells by providing them with an escape mechanism from immunological defense.