Deregulation of oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes involved in apoptosis has been associated with tumor development and progression. To investigate the involvement of apoptosis regulating proteins in oral cancer in Indian patients, primarily associated with chewing tobacco habits, immunohistochemical expression of bcl-2 and bax was examined in 63 oral squamous cell carcinomas, and 31 putative premalignant lesions. Our studies revealed overexpression of tumor specific cytoplasmic bcl-2 in 56% and bax in 43% oral cancers. The oral cancers in the Indian patients are preceded by premalignant oral lesions; hence oral lesions were examined for bcl-2 and bax expression. We observed aberrant expression of bcl-2 in 16% oral lesions comprising leukoplakias and SMF and bax in 55% oral lesions. We have already reported, p53 expression in these oral cancers and lesions. It was noteworthy that 30% oral cancers demonstrated a p53+bcl2+ pattern, and 14% samples exhibited p53+bcl2+bax+ pattern. However, none of the oral lesions showed concurrent deregulation of p53 and bcl-2 or all the three genes. Interestingly 45% oral lesions were p53-bax+ as compared to 18% oral cancers; while 39% oral lesions were bcl2-bax+ as compared to 14% oral cancers, indicating overexpression of bax in oral lesions, in the absence of p53 and bcl-2 proteins. Significant correlation was observed between positive nodal status and bcl2+ (p=0.047) and p53+bcl-2+ (p=0.01) in oral cancers. Kaplan Meier survival analysis showed significantly (p=0.059) higher survival in patients with p53- oral tumors than with p53+ tumors. Our studies thus indicate frequent overexpression of apoptosis regulators bcl-2, bax and p53 proteins in oral cancers, and a subset of oral lesions, representing early events in oral car-cinogenesis. The aberrant bcl-2 expression and loss of p53 function observed, may play an important role in the tumorigenesis of oral cancers by allowing escape from apoptosis and enabling additional genetic alterations to accrue.