A disturbance in the balance between cell proliferation and cell loss, or apoptosis, may underlie neoplastic development. Therefore, we determined spontaneous apoptotic and proliferative rates in normal, hyperplastic, adenomatous, and malignant colorectal epithelia. In paired sections, DNA strand breaks were detected using the terminal deoxynucleotidyltransferase-mediated dUTP nick-end labeling assay, and apoptotic cells were also identified in H&E-stained slides by morphological criteria. Cell proliferation, bcl-2, and p53 expression were analyzed using specific monoclonal antibodies. In normal mucosa, luminal epithelial cells demonstrated higher rates of apoptosis compared to cells in the proliferative zone. Neoplastic transformation was associated with a significant increase in rates of apoptosis and proliferation. However, apoptosis, but not proliferation, decreased at the adenoma-to-carcinoma transition coincident with expression of mutant p53. In carcinomas, both mutant p53 and bcl-2 protein levels were associated with attenuated apoptotic rates. In conclusion, apoptosis is an important regulator of growth in normal and neoplastic colorectal epithelia. Increased apoptosis and proliferation accompany neoplastic transformation, suggesting that an alteration in apoptotic rates is an important event in colorectal carcinogenesis. Furthermore, the imbalance in these processes found in carcinomas may facilitate tumor growth and progression.

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