Loss of heterozygosity (LOH) on the short arm of chromosome 17 (17p) was found in 27 of 52 (52%) previously untreated primary breast cancers. There was a significant correlation between this 17p allelic loss and two parameters associated with aggressive tumor behavior: high cellular proliferative fraction and DNA aneuploidy. These correlations with high cellular proliferative fraction and DNA aneuploidy were not found in tumors with LOH at nine other chromosome locations. The p53 gene, a putative tumor suppressor gene located at 17p13, was examined for aberrations to determine whether it is the target for the 17p LOH in breast cancer. Unlike other types of human cancer, there were no homozygous deletions or rearrangements of the p53 gene, and only 2 of 13 (15%) were mutated in the conserved region where mutational "hot spots" have been previously located. Therefore, we hypothesize that, in breast cancer, either loss or inactivation of gene(s) on chromosome 17p other than the p53 gene or a different mechanism of p53 gene inactivation may be responsible for the observed high labeling index and DNA aneuploidy associated with LOH at 17p.