Hematopoiesis, the process of blood formation, is controlled by a complex developmental program that involves intrinsic and extrinsic regulators. Blood formation is critical to normal embryonic development and during embryogenesis distinct waves of hematopoiesis have been defined that represent the emergence of hematopoietic stem or progenitor cells. The Class I family of homeobox (HOX) genes are also critical for normal embryonic development, whereby mutations are associated with malformations and deformity. Recently, members of the HOXA cluster (comprising 11 genes and non-coding RNA elements) have been associated with the emergence and maintenance of long-term repopulating HSCs. Previous studies identified a gradient of HOXA expression from high in HSCs to low in circulating peripheral cells, indicating their importance in maintaining blood cell numbers and differentiation state. Indeed, dysregulation of HOXA genes either directly or by genetic lesions of upstream regulators correlates with a malignant phenotype. This review discusses the role of the HOXA cluster in both HSC emergence and blood cancer formation highlighting the need for further research to identify specific roles of these master regulators in normal and malignant hematopoiesis.

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