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This article is the author's final published version in International Journal of Molecular Sciences, Volume 23, Issue 12, June 2022, Article number 6799.

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Copyright © 2022 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.

Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (


HOX proteins are transcription factors that regulate stem cell (SC) function, but their role in the SC origin of cancer is under-studied. Aberrant expression of HOX genes occurs in many cancer types. Our goal is to ascertain how retinoic acid (RA) signaling and the regulation of HOXA9 expression might play a role in the SC origin of human colorectal cancer (CRC). Previously, we reported that aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) and other RA pathway components are co-expressed in colonic cancer SCs (CSCs) and that overpopulation of ALDH-positive CSCs occurs during colon tumorigenesis. Our hypothesis is RA signaling regulates HOXA9 expression, and dysregulated RA signaling results in HOXA9 overexpression, which contributes to CSC overpopulation in CRC. Immunostaining showed that HOXA9 was selectively expressed in ALDH-positive SCs, and HOXA9 expression was increased in CRCs compared to normal epithelium. Modulating RA signaling in CRC cells (HT29 and SW480) with ATRA and DEAB decreased cell proliferation and reduced HOXA9 expression. Bioinformatics analyses identified a network of proteins that functionally interact with HOXA9, and the genes that encode these proteins, as well as HOXA9, contain RA receptor binding sites. These findings indicate that the expression of HOXA9 and its functional network is regulated by RA signaling in normal colonic SCs, and, when dysregulated, HOXA9 may contribute to CSC overpopulation that drives CRC development and growth. Our study provides a regulatory mechanism that might be useful in developing treatments against CSC overpopulation in CRC.

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