New strategies are needed for the detection and treatment of lung cancer and must derive from a fuller understanding of lung carcinogenesis. Frequent molecular genetic abnormalities occur in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), but little is known about which of these precede an invasive carcinoma. We examined the expression of p53, epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), and transforming growth factor α, the most common molecular genetic abnormalities in NSCLC, in preneoplastic bronchial lesions. Primary NSCLC and associated bronchial lesions were identified by retrospective review of resected tumors at this center. Expression in the invasive carcinomas, the associated bronchial lesions, and normal lung were contrasted using immunohistochemistry. Thirty-four NSCLC associated with 62 bronchial lesions were identified. The invasive tumors included 15 squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) and 19 non-SCCs. Bronchial lesions included areas of squamous metaplasia (n = 14), inflammatory atypia (n = 19), dysplasia (n = 17), and carcinoma in situ (n = 12). Nineteen (56%) NSCLC and 10 (16%) bronchial lesions exhibited aberrant p53 immunostaining, whereas 18 (53%) NSCLC and 30 (48%) bronchial lesions showed abnormal EGFR immunostaining. Positive staining for transforming growth factor α was seen in 16 (47%) NSCLC but occurred inconsistently in the bronchial lesions and in normal bronchial epithelium. Only bronchial lesions associated with squamous cell carcinomas exhibited staining for p53. Aberrant EGFR expression was not associated with a specific type of invasive carcinoma or with specific preneoplastic lesions, although there was a trend toward increased expression in dysplasia and carcinoma in situ relative to metaplasia and atypia. All but one of the NSCLC simultaneously showing aberrant p53 and EGFR staining were SCC. We conclude that: (a) transforming growth factor α is variably expressed in normal respiratory epithelium as well as reactive and preneoplastic bronchial lesions; (b) p53 expression is seen in preneoplastic bronchial lesions but is not present in reactive or metaplastic epithelium; (c) aberrant EGFR expression occurs in both reactive and preinvasive bronchial lesions and may be an early marker of neoplastic transformation; and (d) the simultaneous aberrant expression of EGFR and p53 occurs predominantly in SCC and their associated bronchial lesions. These findings indicate that aberrant expression of p53 or the EGFR is frequent in bronchial neoplasia, and coexpression may predispose to the development of squamous cell carcinomas of the lung.

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