Antisense oligonucleotides targeting p53 have been hailed as a potentially new technique for treating patients with cancer, and there have been encouraging reports of good patient tolerance in vivo and of antiproliferative effects in vitro. However, evidence is lacking that these oligonucleotides are acting via an antisense interaction to modulate p53 expression. We examined a phosphorothioate antisense oligonucleotide, directed against exon 10 of the TP53 gene, and a chimaeric phosphorothioate-phosphodiester oligonucleotide directed against the p53 translation initiation codon. Both failed to specifically suppress p53 protein production in a cell-free assay system or to have any effect on mutant p53 expression by human pancreatic cancer cell lines. Antiproliferative effects were apparent, especially with the phosphorothioate antisense oligonucleotide, but this was independent of the p53 status of the cells (mutant, wild-type or absent) and also occurred with the control (sense and randomised) oligonucleotides. The most dramatic antiproliferative effects were seen with the 'control' phosphorothioate oligonucleotides. These findings suggest that the antiproliferative effects of some antisense oligonucleotides may be unrelated to expression of the gene they have been designed to target.