The CD44 proteins form a ubiquitously expressed family of cell surface adhesion molecules involved in cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions. The multiple protein isoforms are encoded by a single gene by alternative splicing and are further modified by a range of post-translational modifications. CD44 proteins are single chain molecules comprising an N-terminal extracellular domain, a membrane proximal region, a transmembrane domain, and a cytoplasmic tail. The CD44 gene has only been detected in higher organisms and the amino acid sequence of most of the molecule is highly conserved between mammalian species. The principal ligand of CD44 is hyaluronic acid, an integral component of the extracellular matrix. Other CD44 ligands include osteopontin, serglycin, collagens, fibronectin, and laminin. The major physiological role of CD44 is to maintain organ and tissue structure via cell-cell and cell-matrix adhesion, but certain variant isoforms can also mediate lymphocyte activation and homing, and the presentation of chemical factors and hormones. Increased interest has been directed at the characterisation of this molecule since it was observed that expression of multiple CD44 isoforms is greatly upregulated in neoplasia. CD44, particularly its variants, may be useful as a diagnostic or prognostic marker of malignancy and, in at least some human cancers, it may be a potential target for cancer therapy. This review describes the structure of the CD44 gene and discusses some of its roles in physiological and pathological processes.
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