The immunohistochemical expression of the p53 gene protein was examined in a consecutive series of 143 cases of pure ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) of the breast. Expression of wild-type and/or mutant p53 protein was detected in 36 (25.2%) of the cases examined, as evidenced by positive nuclear staining with the monoclonal antibody DO 7. Thirty-four (35.8%) of the large cell cases showed p53 protein expression compared with two (4.1%) of the small cell cases (chi 2 = 15.3 [df = 1], P < .001). p53 Protein expression also was associated with an increased histologic degree of necrosis, with a nearly significant association of negative tumor estrogen receptor status and p53 protein expression. No significant association of p53 protein expression and c-erbB-2 protein expression was seen. Immunohistochemical expression of p53 protein is present in approximately 25% of DCIS cases and is confined almost exclusively to large cell DCIS, a morphologic subtype of in situ breast carcinoma thought to be more biologically aggressive. Expression of p53 protein may be important in the neoplastic progression of DCIS, reflecting the acquisition of p53 gene mutations in large cell DCIS cases. Therefore, p53 may be implicated in mammary tumor evolution from in situ to invasive disease.