Sporadic and familial malignant melanoma susceptibility has been linked to defects in the chromosomal region 9p21. Recently, a putative 9p21 tumor suppressor gene, the cyclin dependent kinase inhibitor 2 (CDKN2) or p16 gene, has been shown to be deleted, mutated, or rear-ranged in a high percentage of sporadic melanoma cell lines, as well as mutated in the germline of a proportion of familial melanoma patients. CDKN2 encodes a Mr 16,000 protein (p16) that plays a key role in cell cycle control by binding to the cyclin-dependent kinase 4 enzyme and inhibiting its ability to phosphorylate critical substrates necessary for transition past the G1 phase of the cell cycle. Thus, mutations or deletions of the CDKN2 gene could result in abnormal proliferation via defective cell cycle control. The correlation of 9p21 cytogenetic and molecular alterations with the clinical stages of melanoma progression suggests that dysfunction of a gene within this chromosomal region is critical to the evolution of melanoma. However, it remains unclear whether this gene is the CDKN2 gene. If so, then loss of p16 is potentially an initiating or early event in melanoma progression. To address the issues of what is the potential involvement of the CDKN2 gene in sporadic melanoma and precisely when during the clinically evident stages of melanoma progression defects in CDKN2 occur, we have evaluated by immunohistochemistry the expression of p16 protein in 103 melanocytic lesions representing all stages in the progression of melanoma. Our results suggest that loss of p16 protein expression is (a) not necessary for tumor initiation in malignant melanoma because all melanomas in situ and the majority of primary invasive melanomas retain expression of this protein; and (b) potentially more related to invasiveness or the ability to metastasize, because 52% of primary invasive tumors and 72% of metastatic lesions show partial or complete loss of expression of p16.

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This work was supported in part by the Cancer Research fund of the Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Foundation (F. G. H.), the Donald E. and Delia B. Baxter Foundation (J. W. F.), and a S. J. Martin fellowship from the National Health Medical Research Council of Australia (G.J.W.).

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