The positive association of decreased risk of colorectal cancer with nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug (NSAID) use, combined with the observation that cyclooxygenase(COX)-2 is present in a majority of colorectal tumors, has led to the proposed use of isozyme-specific COX inhibitors as preventive agents in polyp and tumor formation in the colon. However, the exact biochemical mechanisms and disease stage at which reduced risk is mediated remain somewhat controversial, in part because of the complex biochemical changes that occur during the progression from aberrant crypt to polyp to tumor. In this study, COX-1 and COX-2 protein expression levels were determined in sets of tumor and normal colon tissue. Changes were characterized in COX-1 and COX-2 expression within individuals, in relation to such factors as sex, tumor grade, and location in the colorectum. COX-1 expression levels were found to be significantly reduced in tumors compared to matched normal tissues (Dunn's method, P < 0.05). Additionally, COX-1 expression was decreased in stage T3 tumors as compared to stage T2 tumors (Student's t-test, P = 0.009). Similar to previous reports, COX-2 protein expression was present in 73% of the tumors studied and appeared to be independent of tumor grade and sex. Interestingly, decreased COX-2 expression correlated with tumor occurrence in rectal mucosa (Wilcoxon two-sample test, P < 0.05). These results warrant further investigation, especially the identification of determinants that would predict which populations would be most responsive to COX-2 inhibition as a means of colorectal cancer chemoprevention.