Undifferentiated nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is an epithelial malignancy that is consistently associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) but which very rarely has p53 gene mutations in primary tumours. Since the tumour suppressor p53 is mutated in most human cancers or the wild type protein is inactivated in a significant number of the remainder, here we have investigated cellular factors that could compromise p53 function in primary NPC. Twenty-five primary tumours were judged to carry only wild type p53 by SSCP analysis of all exons and sequence determination of exons 4-9. Only one tumour was found to express significant levels of hMdm2 and in 24/25 there were no detectable mutations or deletions in exons 1beta and 2 of the p14(ARF) gene. However, immunohistochemistry consistently revealed that all the tumour cells express substantial amounts of the p53-related protein p63. Semi-quantitative RT-PCR analysis of mRNA from tumour biopsies showed that the dominant species expressed was invariably the truncated deltaN-isotype. Since this can block p53-mediated transactivation, it is potentially a dominant-negative isoform. In normal nasopharyngeal epithelium the distribution of p63 was restricted to the proliferating basal and suprabasal layers. We suggest that deltaN-p63 is a good candidate as a suppressor of wild type p53 function in these tumours and also that it may prove to be a valuable diagnostic marker for undifferentiated NPC.