Mutations of the p53 tumor suppressor gene are the most common genetic alterations associated with human cancer. Tumor-associated p53 mutations often show characteristic tissue-specific profiles which may infer environmentally induced mutational mechanisms. The p53 mutational frequency and spectrum were determined for 95 carcinomas of the upper and lower respiratory tract (32 lung and 63 upper respiratory tract). Mutations were identified at a frequency of 30% in upper respiratory tract (URT) tumors and 31% in lung tumors. All 29 identified mutations were single-base substitutions. Comparison of the frequency of specific base substitutions between lung and URT showed a striking difference. Transitions occurred at a frequency of 68% in URT, but only 30% in lung. Mutations involving G:C-->A:T transitions, which are commonly reported in gastric and esophageal tumors, were the most frequently identified alteration in URT (11/19). Mutations involving G:C-->T:A transversions, which were relatively common in lung tumors (3/10) and are representative of tobacco smoke-induced mutations were rare in URT tumors (1/19). Interestingly, G:C-->A:T mutations at CpG sites, which are characteristic of endogenous processes, were observed frequently in URT tumors (9/19) but only rarely in lung tumors (1/10), suggesting that both endogenous and exogenous factors are responsible for the observed differences in mutational spectra between the upper and lower respiratory systems.

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