p53 aberrations are early events in the pathogenesis of betel- and tobacco-related oral malignancies. Accumulation of p53 protein in oral lesions may elicit a humoral immune response against p53 protein in these patients. p53 antibodies (Abs) were analyzed in 183 sera obtained from patients with premalignant or malignant oral lesions and normal individuals by enzyme-linked immunoassay using recombinant p53 protein as antigen. These results were correlated with accumulation of p53 protein in patients' matched oral tissue specimens. Circulating p53 Abs were observed in 24 of 70 (34%) cancer patients and 15 of 50 (30%) patients with premalignant oral lesions. p53 Abs showed a significant association with increase in tumor size and dedifferentiation of tumors, factors indicative of poor prognosis. Expression of p53 protein was analyzed in 43 matched oral lesions (18 premalignant and 25 malignant cases). All the p53-seropositive patients (7 leukoplakia and 11 squamous cell carcinoma) showed elevated levels of p53 protein in matched oral lesions. However, the total number of patients seropositive for p53 Abs was lesser than that of patients exhibiting p53 protein accumulation in oral lesions. Four of the 63 normal healthy individuals who were heavy consumers of tobacco (smoking/chewing) and betel were found to be positive for p53 Abs. Detection of circulating p53 Abs in patients with premalignant oral lesions suggests that humoral immune response against p53 protein is an early event in oral oncogenesis and may be a surrogate marker for both p53 alteration and preclinical cancer.