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J Pathol. 2005 Jan;205(2):154-71.

The pathophysiology of HOX genes and their role in cancer.

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Department of Child Health, Queen's University, Belfast, Grosvenor Road, Belfast BT12 6BA, UK.


The HOM-C clustered prototype homeobox genes of Drosophila, and their counterparts, the HOX genes in humans, are highly conserved at the genomic level. These master regulators of development continue to be expressed throughout adulthood in various tissues and organs. The physiological and patho-physiological functions of this network of genes are being avidly pursued within the scientific community, but defined roles for them remain elusive. The order of expression of HOX genes within a cluster is co-ordinated during development, so that the 3' genes are expressed more anteriorly and earlier than the 5' genes. Mutations in HOXA13 and HOXD13 are associated with disorders of limb formation such as hand-foot-genital syndrome (HFGS), synpolydactyly (SPD), and brachydactyly. Haematopoietic progenitors express HOX genes in a pattern characteristic of the lineage and stage of differentiation of the cells. In leukaemia, dysregulated HOX gene expression can occur due to chromosomal translocations involving upstream regulators such as the MLL gene, or the fusion of a HOX gene to another gene such as the nucleoporin, NUP98. Recent investigations of HOX gene expression in leukaemia are providing important insights into disease classification and prediction of clinical outcome. Whereas the oncogenic potential of certain HOX genes in leukaemia has already been defined, their role in other neoplasms is currently being studied. Progress has been hampered by the experimental approach used in many studies in which the expression of small subsets of HOX genes was analysed, and complicated by the functional redundancy implicit in the HOX gene system. Attempts to elucidate the function of HOX genes in malignant transformation will be enhanced by a better understanding of their upstream regulators and downstream target genes.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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