Human malignancies are often characterized by mutations of the p53 tumor suppressor gene. In a large proportion of cases, the mutation results in production of an altered protein that can bind and inactivate the wild-type gene product. This "dominant-negative" activity of mutant p53 molecules may limit the utility of p53 gene therapy of cancer. Using replication-deficient recombinant adenoviruses (rAd-p53) as a p53 gene delivery system, we evaluated the effects of p53 reintroduction on a series of 45 human cell lines containing wild-type, mutated, or no p53 protein. Results indicate a p53-specific, dose-dependent, and promoter-specific growth inhibition of a majority of p53-altered cell lines that correlates with the degree of adenovirus transgene expression. Similar effects were not observed on cells containing wild-type p53. rAd-p53 inhibited the growth of cells expressing various mutant p53 proteins including those characterized as "dominant negative mutants", and the antiproliferative effects were not abrogated by high levels of endogenous mutated p53 protein. In vivo, rAd-p53 also suppressed tumor growth and increased survival of nude mice bearing tumors that express mutant p53. These results support a role for p53 gene therapy of cancer, including malignancies harboring mutations in this tumor suppressor gene.