In non-neoplastic tissues, the expression of protein gene product 9.5 (PGP 9.5), a member of the ubiquitin hydrolase family of proteins, is confined to neural and neuroendocrine cells. Although it has been claimed that PGP 9.5 is a specific marker of neural and/or nerve sheath differentiation in human tumors, careful review of the literature suggests that relatively few nonneural or nerve sheath tumors have been studied. Prompted by our recent observation of a PGP 9.5-positive malignant fibrous histiocytoma, we undertook a study of PGP 9.5 expression in a large group of well-characterized mesenchymal neoplasms. Sections from 95 mesenchymal tumors were retrieved from our archives and immunostained for PGP 9.5 using standard avidin-biotin complex technique and heat-induced epitope retrieval. Scoring was as follows: negative, 1+ (<10-25% of cells), 2+ (25-50% of cells), and 3+ (>50% of cells). Normal nerves and fibrous tissue were internal positive and negative controls, respectively. Positive immunostaining was seen in 80/95 (84%) of cases. Positive results by tumor subtype were as follows: (1) nerve sheath tumors: malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor (7/10), neurofibromas (10/10), and perineuriomas (3/3); (2) (Myo) fibroblastic tumors: malignant fibrous histiocytoma (18/20), low-grade fibromyxoid sarcomas (8/9), fibromatoses (7/7), and desmoplastic fibroblastomas (2/2); (3) vascular tumors: angiosarcomas (4/4), hemangioendotheliomas (3/5), and hemangiomas (3/4); and (4) other non-nerve sheath tumors: pleomorphic liposarcoma (4/4), dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (2/5), rhabdomyosarcomas (2/2), synovial sarcomas (8/8), melanomas (1/2). All positive cases were 2-3+ except 6 malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor, 1 neurofibroma, 3 malignant fibrous histiocytoma, 2 low-grade fibromyxoid sarcoma, and 1 dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans. Positive staining was seen in normal smooth muscle and germinal centers in addition to nerves. We conclude that in this, the largest study to date of PGP 9.5 expression in mesenchymal neoplasms, we have found strong (2-3+) expression in the vast majority of nonneural or nerve sheath neoplasms studied. Although PGP 9.5 is a sensitive neural/nerve sheath marker, it is essentially totally nonspecific for diagnostic purposes. It is possible that our findings reflect cross-reactivity of the 13C4 clone with epitopes present on other ubiquitin hydrolases. Alternatively, PGP 9.5 expression may be aberrantly up-regulated in a variety of mesenchymal neoplasms.