Body cavity effusions may be the first manifestation of malignancy or of recurrence or relapse. We surveyed effusions and washes for expression of X-linked inhibitor of apoptosis (XIAP), a potent constituent of the inhibitor of apoptosis (IAP) family of proteins. IAPs prevent apoptosis by blocking the activation of caspases, thereby preventing caspase-mediated cell degradation. Elevated expression of XIAP could be an underpinning of relapse and/or resistance to apoptosis-inducing cancer therapy. We performed an immunocytochemical survey of XIAP expression in cell blocks from benign and malignant body cavity effusions and washes. In all, 116 alcohol-fixed, formalin postfixed paraffin-embedded cell block specimens from 82 pleural effusions, 22 ascites, 11 pelvic/peritoneal washes and one pericardial effusion were evaluated immunocytochemically with monoclonal anti-XIAP (#610763, BD Biosciences, San Jose, USA) 1:250, 4 degrees C x 72 h, and developed using EnVision-Plus reagents (Dako) and diaminobenzidine as chromagen. Particulate cytoplasmic staining was considered positive. The prevalence of staining for specific malignancies varied with the tissue of origin as follows: ovarian (13/13, 100%); lung (9/11, 82%), breast (6/13, 46%); gastric (4/7, 57%), colon (0/4, 0%), pancreas (2/3, 67%), gallbladder (1/1, 100%), fallopian tube (1/3, 33%), endometrial (6/7, 86%), mesothelioma (4/5, 80%), carcinoma of unknown primary (5/5, 100%) and hematopoietic malignancies (3/9, 33%). Overall, 54 out of 81 (67%) malignant effusions displayed XIAP positivity. Benign effusions (n = 35) were virtually XIAP-negative except for two cases (6%) in which histiocytes showed moderate staining. Weak nonspecific staining was sometimes noted in inflammatory cells or histiocytes. XIAP immunostaining, when strong, allows for ready distinction of malignant from benign and reactive cell populations. Strong XIAP staining was most prevalent in ovarian carcinomas and less prevalent in mammary carcinomas. The degree of XIAP staining of tumor cells may be a means of identifying the most therapy-resistant cases (ie, those with strong XIAP expression), and allow additional triaging to XIAP-blocking drugs presently being developed and clinically tested.