Measurement of proliferation rates by the more standard in vitro uptake techniques of [3H]thymidine and 5'-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine (BrdUrd) labeling indices (LIs) were compared to proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) in rectal mucosal biopsies from 16 subjects with resected colorectal cancer and 14 normal age-matched controls. Correlation coefficients for BrdUrd versus PCNA, [3H]thymidine versus PCNA, and BrdUrd versus [3H]thymidine were 0.691, 0.876, and 0.770, respectively. No significant differences (P > 0.05) were detected in total mean LIs between the LI methods for the normal group. In contrast, total PCNA LIs were found to be significantly different in the resected cancer patients when compared to either BrdUrd (P = 0.005) or [3H]thymidine (P < 0.001). A significant difference (P = 0.010) in total PCNA LI but not in total [3H]thymidine or BrdUrd LIs was also observed between normal controls and resected colorectal cancer subjects. Compartmental analysis of the cancer group versus the normals showed a significant difference in compartments 1 and 3 for PCNA LIs only. The reproducibility of two PCNA LI counts was excellent (r = 0.9). In addition, the reliability of mean LIs were > 0.8 with the exception of [3H]thymidine in the normal group (0.7). These study results demonstrate that PCNA LIs in human rectal mucosal biopsies are correlated highly with other more commonly used cellular proliferation measurements; however, PCNA LIs were found to be significantly higher than the other two methods in the resected colorectal cancer subjects.

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