Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the unique ability to self-renew and differentiate into many different cell types. Their function is controlled by core gene networks whose misregulation can result in aberrant stem cell function and defects of regeneration or neoplasia. HOX
genes are master regulators of cell identity and cell fate during embryonic development. They play a crucial role in embryonic stem cell differentiation into specific lineages and their expression is maintained in adult stem cells along differentiation hierarchies. Aberrant HOX
gene expression is found in several cancers where they can function as either oncogenes by sustaining cell proliferation or tumor-suppressor genes by controlling cell differentiation. Emerging evidence shows that abnormal expression of HOX
genes is involved in the transformation of adult stem cells into cancer stem cells. Cancer stem cells have been identified in most malignancies and proved to be responsible for cancer initiation, recurrence, and metastasis. In this review, we consider the role of HOX
genes in normal and cancer stem cells and discuss how the modulation of HOX
gene function could lead to the development of novel therapeutic strategies that target cancer stem cells to halt tumor initiation, progression, and resistance to treatment.
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