Routinely processed pathological specimens from 119 patients with stage I and II adenocarcinomas or squamous cell carcinomas were examined by immunohistochemical analysis for altered retinoblastoma (RB) and/or p53 protein expression. Absent RB nuclear staining (RB-) indicating loss of RB function occurred in 19 (16%) of the cases studied, whereas expression of a putative mutant p53 nuclear protein (p53(+)) was found in 54 (45%) of the tumors. The median survival was 39 versus 12 months for patients with RB+ and RB- tumors, respectively (P = 0.05 by log rank analysis). Similarly, the median survival was 41 months for patients whose tumors had no expression of mutant p53 (p53(-)) compared with 24 months for individuals with p53 (+) tumors (P = 0.01). These differences in survival, however, were not statistically significant by multivariate analysis. Nevertheless, individuals with RB-/p53(+) tumors had a significantly shorter median survival (12 months) than those with RB+/p53(-) tumors (41 months), as determined by both log rank and multivariate analyses (P = 0.005 and 0.03, respectively). In addition, 66 large cell carcinomas from all stages were examined. Again, a more significant difference in survival (48 versus 8 months) was found between patients with RB+/p53(-) versus RB-/p53(+) tumors (P = 0. 006). These results suggest that RB and p53 status might be used synergistically as prognostic factors in a subset of non-small cell lung carcinomas.