The expression of p53 and bcl-2 proteins by immunohistochemistry and the identification of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection by a non-isotopic polymerase chain reaction (PCR)based method were investigated in 30 patients with head and neck cancer. Ten cases were HPV-positive (33%), mostly as double or multiple infections by high- or intermediate-risk types. Twenty-one patients were p53-positive (70%), 9/10 with HPV-positive tumours and 12/20 with HPV-negative tumours; this difference was not statistically significant. Only four cases were bcl-2-positive, irrespective of the presence of either HPV or p53. No correlation was found between these biological factors and tumour stage, differentiation grade, and alcohol or tobacco use. Our findings indicate that p53 is involved in the majority of cases, bcl-2 is rare, and high-risk HPV could play a key role, especially in tumours of tongue and tonsil. In conclusion p53 and bcl-2 protein expression and the presence of HPV infection are independent events in these malignancies.