Background: Sunlight precipitates a series of genetic events that lead to the development of skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). The p53 tumour suppressor gene, which plays a pivotal role in cell division and apoptosis, is frequently found mutated in sunlight-induced skin tumours.
Objective: To investigate the immunoreactivity of the p53 gene in non-melanoma skin cancers and to correlate its expression with apoptotic and cell proliferation markers.
Methods: We analysed 35 non-melanoma tumours including 19 BCCs and 16 SCCs from sun-exposed skin areas. p53 protein expression was studied immunohistochemically using the DO7 monoclonal antibody against wild-type and mutant p53 forms. The percentage of p53-immunopositive nuclei was measured by image analysis. Cell proliferation and apoptosis were also assessed by image analysis following Ki-67 immunostaining and application of the TUNEL method on paraffin sections, respectively.
Results: The percentage of p53-expressing cells varied from 3.5 to 90 in BCCs (median value 54.4%) and from 3.7 to 94 in SCCs (median value 40.3%). The mean value of Ki-67-positive cells was comparable in both groups of tumours with a mean value of 40.6% in BCCs and 34.6% in SCCs. Conversely, the TUNEL assay showed sporadic staining of apoptotic cells within the tumours with a mean value of 1.12% in BCCs and 1.8% in SCCs. p53 protein expression was correlated positively with cell proliferation (r = 0.75, P = 0.000001) and negatively with apoptosis (r = -0.23, P = 0.05).
Conclusion: p53 immunoreactivity was high in the majority of the skin carcinomas examined and correlated positively with cell proliferation and negatively with apoptosis. The p53 protein overexpression appears to be related to an inactivated protein resulting from mutations of the p53 gene or other unclear molecular mechanisms.