The integrity of the basal stem cell layer is critical for epithelial homoeostasis. In this paper, we review the expression of oral mucosal stem cell markers (OM-SCMs) in oral submucous fibrosis (OSF), oral potentially malignant disorders (OPMDs) and oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) to understand the role of basal cells in potentiating cancer stem cell behaviour in OSF. While the loss of basal cell clonogenicity triggers epithelial atrophy in OSF, the transition of the epithelium from atrophic to hyperplastic and eventually neoplastic involves the reactivation of basal stemness. The vacillating expression patterns of OM-SCMs confirm the role of keratins 5, 14, 19, CD44, β1-integrin, p63, sex-determining region Y box (SOX2), octamer-binding transcription factor 4 (Oct-4), c-MYC, B-cell-specific Moloney murine leukaemia virus integration site 1 (Bmi-1) and aldehyde dehydrogenase 1 (ALDH1) in OSF, OPMDs and OSCC. The downregulation of OM-SCMs in the atrophic epithelium of OSF and their upregulation during malignant transformation are illustrated with relevant literature in this review.
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