We have characterized the normal human tissue distribution and tumor expression of the human multidrug resistance gene (MDR1) product P-glycoprotein (Pgp) by immunohistochemical staining of frozen tissue sections of human normal and tumor tissues, using three mouse monoclonal antibodies (MAb) which recognize at least two different epitopes of Pgp. Pgp expression on normal human tissues was detected in specialized epithelial cells with secretory/excretory functions, trophoblasts in the placenta, and on endothelial cells of capillary blood vessels at blood-tissue barrier sites. There were significant differences in the staining patterns of these MAb. Mouse MAb HYB-241 and HYB-612 each recognize an extracellular epitope of Pgp, whereas mouse MAb C219 detects a carboxy terminal intracellular epitope and has recently been reported to crossreact with the MDR3 gene product. HYB-241 and HYB-612 strongly stain endothelial cells and trophoblasts, whereas C219 is weakly positive or unreactive on these cells. Likewise, C219 strongly stains the biliary pole of hepatocytes, skeletal and heart muscle fibers, whereas HYB-241 and HYB-612 are unreactive on these cells. Immunopathological studies were performed on a wide variety of human tumors. Pgp expression on human tumors was most commonly detected in colon. renal, and adrenal carcinomas; rarely in lung and gastric carcinomas and certain germ cell tumors; and was undetectable in breast and endometrial carcinomas tested. Few sarcomas and none of the melanomas, neuroblastomas, gliomas, and pheochromocytomas had detectable Pgp expression. Intensity and pattern of staining varied among different cases of a given tumor type; although homogeneous immunoreactivity was observed, heterogeneity of expression in a single histological section was more common. The finding of Pgp expression in a variety of normal tissues with diverse physiological functions suggests that the role of Pgp may not be limited to excretion of xenobiotics. Pgp expression in capillaries of the brain and testis may explain the failure of drugs such as vincristine and actinomycin-D to penetrate into these tissues, allowing them to remain as pharmacological sanctuaries for malignant cells. Although Pgp expression can now be detected in a variety of human tumors, further studies are needed to establish the possible significance of this finding.