Survivin, a new member of the family of apoptosis inhibitors, is expressed almost exclusively in proliferating cells, above all in cancers. Subcellular localisation and prognostic implications of the survivin protein have not yet been determined in oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma. The survival of 84 patients with oesophageal squamous cell carcinomas was correlated with the extent of immunohistochemical survivin expression in tumour cell nuclei. Tumours were scored positive when >5% cells stained positive. Patients were followed up for at least 5 years or until death. In normal oesophageal squamous cell epithelium, some cytoplasmic survivin expression was detected in the basal cells, whereas proliferating cells showed nuclear staining of survivin. Nuclear expression of survivin was also detected in 67 cancers (80%). The mean survival for patients of this group (28 months, range 20-36) was significantly less than that for patients without survivin expression in the tumour cell nuclei (108 months, range 62-154, P=0.003). Using univariate analysis, nuclear survivin expression (P=0.003), tumour depth (P=0.001), lymph node metastasis (P=0.003) and stage (P<0.001) were the best predictors of survival. In contrast, cytoplasmic survivin staining was noted in 53 (63%) tumours and had no prognostic relevance. In conclusion, the analysis of nuclear survivin expression identifies subgroups in oesophageal squamous cell cancer with favourable (survivin(-)) or with poor prognosis (survivin(+)). We suggest that the determination of nuclear survivin expression could be used to individualise therapeutic strategies in oesophageal squamous cell cancer in the future.