Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common and lethal cancers worldwide. It arises from modulation of multiple genes by mutations, epigenetic regulation, noncoding RNAs and translational modifications of encoded proteins. Although >40% of HCCs are clonal and thought to arise from cancer stem cells (CSCs), the precise identification and mechanisms of CSC formation remain poorly understood. A functional role of transforming growth factor (TGF)-β signalling in liver and intestinal stem cell niches has been demonstrated through mouse genetics. These studies demonstrate that loss of TGF-β signalling yields a phenotype similar to a human CSC disorder, Beckwithg-Wiedemann syndrome. Insights into this powerful pathway will be vital for developing new therapeutics in cancer. Current clinical approaches are aimed at establishing novel cancer drugs that target activated pathways when the TGF-β tumour suppressor pathway is lost, and TGF-β itself could potentially be targeted in metastases. Studies delineating key functional pathways in HCC and CSC formation could be important in preventing this disease and could lead to simple treatment strategies; for example, use of vitamin D might be effective when the TGF-β pathway is lost or when wnt signalling is activated.