For genomewide monitoring and identification of biomarkers of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), we have conducted a systematic characterization of gene expression profiles, using human cDNA microarrays containing 9K clones, in 25 HNSCC cell lines and 1 immortalized human oral keratinocyte cell line. We used normal human oral keratinocytes (NHOKs) as a reference. Our study showed that genes primarily involved in cell cycle regulation, oncogenesis, cell proliferation, differentiation, apoptosis and cell adhesion were widely altered in the 26 cell lines. Upregulated genes included known oncogenes, protein kinases, DNA-binding proteins and cell cycle regulators, while those commonly downregulated included differentiation markers, cell adhesion proteins, extracellular matrix proteins, structural proteins (keratins) and protease inhibitor proteins. Compared to NHOK, we observed a striking reduction in the expression of genes involved in terminal differentiation, suggesting that a loss in this process is an important signature of HNSCC. In addition, hierarchical clustering analysis as well as principal component analysis revealed 2 distinctive subtypes of gene expression patterns among the 26 cell lines, reflecting a degree of heterogeneity in HNSCC. By applying significance analysis of microarrays, 128 genes were selected for being distinctively expressed between the 2 groups. Genes differentially expressed in the 2 subgroups include cell proliferation-related genes, IGFBP6, EGFR and VEGFC; tumor suppression and apoptosis-related genes such as Tp53, Tp63; as well as cell cycle regulators such as CCND1 and CCND2 (cyclins D1 and D2), suggesting that the 2 subgroups might have undergone different pathways of carcinogenesis.