We analyzed allelic loss at the p53 gene (17p13) and at chromosome region 9p21 in 35 primary head and neck squamous cell carcinomas. Loss of heterozygosity (LOH) at p53 and 9p21 was found in 50 and 75% of informative cases, respectively. LOH at the p53 gene did not increase significantly with tumor stage, but was more frequent in moderately and poorly differentiated tumors than in well-differentiated tumors. LOH plus mutation or homozygous deletion of p53 was limited to advanced stage and poorly differentiated tumors. Allelic loss at 9p21 is frequent in early stage head and neck squamous cell carcinoma and is not significantly associated with LOH at p53. The second exon of the p16/MTS1/CDKN2 gene was found to be homozygously deleted in 1 of 19 cases showing LOH at 9p21, but direct sequencing did not show mutations in the remaining 18 cases. This suggests that p16 plays a limited role in the development of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.