The p21WAF1 protein is an important regulator of the cell cycle. Its expression and prognostic significance were investigated immunohistochemically in samples of normal esophageal squamous epithelium (n = 10), severe squamous cell dysplasia (n = 20), carcinoma in situ (n = 14), permanent esophageal squamous cell carcinoma cell lines (n = 3), and invasive squamous cell carcinomas treated either by potentially curative resection (n = 172) or by combined modality therapy (radiochemotherapy +/- surgery; n = 38). Whereas p21WAF1 expression in the normal epithelium was restricted to a few cells adjacent to the basal cell layer, p21WAF1 overexpression was frequently found in preneoplasias and invasive carcinomas. Expression of p21WAF1 in invasive carcinomas was not correlated with tumor differentiation, pT category, or pN category. Among carcinomas treated by potential curative resection, univariate (P = 0.0025) and multivariate (P = 0.0081) survival analysis showed significant correlation of strong p21WAF1 expression (> or =50% p21WAF1-positive tumor cells) with poor overall survival. Univariate survival analysis (P = 0.0006) revealed the same prognostic influence in the group of patients treated by combined modality therapy. We conclude that overexpression of p21WAF1 protein is a frequent event in preneoplasias and neoplasias of the esophagus. Immunohistochemical examination of p21WAF1 expression may provide important prognostic information for decision-making in the treatment of patients with esophageal cancer.

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