Tumour-initiating cells, or cancer stem cells (CSCs), possess stem-cell-like properties observed in normal adult tissue stem cells. Normal and cancerous stem cells may therefore share regulatory mechanisms for maintaining self-renewing capacity and resisting differentiation elicited by cell-intrinsic or microenvironmental cues. Here, we show that miR-199a promotes stem cell properties in mammary stem cells and breast CSCs by directly repressing nuclear receptor corepressor LCOR, which primes interferon (IFN) responses. Elevated miR-199a expression in stem-cell-enriched populations protects normal and malignant stem-like cells from differentiation and senescence induced by IFNs that are produced by epithelial and immune cells in the mammary gland. Importantly, the miR-199a-LCOR-IFN axis is activated in poorly differentiated ERbreast tumours, functionally promotes tumour initiation and metastasis, and is associated with poor clinical outcome. Our study therefore reveals a common mechanism shared by normal and malignant stem cells to protect them from suppressive immune cytokine signalling.