Alterations in the p53 gene were analysed in 39 patients with locally advanced breast cancers (LABCs) (stage III-IV) with inflammatory signs in most cases (UICC stage T4d = 32 patients) by molecular and immunohistochemical (IHC) approaches. All patients were included in the same therapy protocol. Using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and a single-strand conformational polymorphism migration technique (SSCP), the presence of mutations in exons 2-11, covering the entire coding sequence of the p53 gene, was evaluated. Using the mouse specific anti-human p53 monoclonal antibody (PAb 1801), we also looked for overexpression of the p53 protein in tissue sections. In 16 cases shifted bands were reproducibly identified by PCR-SSCP, and all but one (localised to exon 10) were in exons 5-8, the usual mutational hotspots. Fifteen of these 16 samples were sequenced and 14 of the suspected mutations (36%) were confirmed. Most of them (12) were single nucleotide substitutions, and transitions were more frequent (eight cases) than transversions (four cases). Fourteen of the tumour samples were positively stained with the monoclonal antibody PAb 1801, 11 with nuclear staining only, two with mixed cytoplasmic and nuclear staining and one with cytoplasmic staining only. Staining patterns were very heterogeneous in terms of the percentage of positive cells (10-75%) and their distribution in the tissue section (isolated foci or dispersed cells). In 11 of the 14 mutated cases a positive immunostaining was observed. The presence of a p53 mutation was significantly associated with larger tumour diameter (chi 2 = 7.490, P = 0.0062) and the presence of clinical metastases (stage IV) (chi 2 = 10.113, P = 0.0015). A non-statistically significant trend of association was observed between p53 mutation, negative oestrogen receptors and lower response rate to therapy. Our results in this group of patients and the heterogeneity of the staining of tumour cells in tissue sections suggest that p53 mutations could be a late event in this non-familial form of breast cancer.