Myoepithelial cells (MCs) constitute the basal cell layer of normal mammary epithelia, and their identification is of particular diagnostic value because they are retained in most benign lesions while being lost in malignancy. Several MC immunocytochemical markers are currently available for diagnostic purposes, with special reference to smooth muscle-related antigens. p63 is a member of the p53 gene family, and its germline mutations are associated with severe mammary developmental defects in both rodents and humans. Different p63 isoforms have been identified, some of which (DeltaNp63) are preferentially expressed in the epithelial basal cells of different organs and have been considered as possible markers of stem cells/reserve cells. We investigated immunohistochemically 384 samples of normal and diseased human breast, including 300 invasive carcinomas, using four antibodies recognizing all p63 isoforms, or the DeltaNp63 isoforms. Twenty cytologic specimens were also investigated. Furthermore, snap-frozen tissue samples from three fibroadenomas and 10 invasive ductal carcinomas with their paired non-neoplastic tissues and three corresponding lymph node metastases were evaluated for the expression of p63 mRNA by RT-PCR. In normal breast tissue p63 immunoreactivity was confined to the nuclei of MCs. In all benign lesions p63-immunoreactive cells formed a continuous basal rim along the epithelial structures. Stromal cells, and in particular myofibroblasts, were consistently unreactive. Adenomyoepitheliomas showed nuclear staining in most neoplastic cells. A peripheral rim of p63-immunoreactive cells was retained surrounding lobular and ductal carcinoma in situ, although it was discontinuous as opposed to the normal structures. Invasive breast carcinomas were consistently devoid of nuclear p63 staining, with the exception of the two adenoid-cystic carcinomas, of the two ductal carcinomas with squamous metaplasia, and of 11 (4.6%) ductal carcinomas not otherwise specified, showing p63 immunoreactivity in a minor fraction (5-15%) of the neoplastic cells. In comparison with other MC markers, p63 was the most specific, being restricted exclusively to MCs, whereas antibodies to smooth muscle actin and, to a lesser extent, calponin also decorated stromal myofibroblasts. In the cytologic preparations p63 immunoreactivity was a consistent feature of "naked nuclei" and of a subset of cells surrounding benign epithelial clusters. RT-PCR experiments with primers specific for different p63 isoforms documented that normal tissues and fibroadenomas preferentially expressed the DeltaNp63 isoforms. Our study demonstrates that in normal and pathologic breast tissues MCs consistently express the DeltaNp63 isoforms. We suggest p63 as a reliable, highly specific, and sensitive MC marker in both histologic and cytologic preparations. Furthermore, because p63 immunoreactivity in adult epithelia is normally restricted to progenitor cells, it can be speculated that it might be a clue for the identification of the still elusive breast progenitor cells.