Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common cancer in humans. The majority of sporadic BCCs have allele loss on chromosome 9q22 implying that inactivation of a tumour suppressor in this region is an important step in BCC formation. The gene for nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome (NBCCS), an autosomal dominant disorder characterized by multiple BCCs, maps to the same region and is presumed to be the tumour suppressor inactivated at this site. NBCCS has been identified recently and encodes a protein with strong homology to the Drosophila segment polarity gene, patched. Analysis of Drosophila mutants indicates that patched interacts with the hedgehog signalling pathway, repressing the expression of various hedgehog target genes including wingless, decapentaplegic and patched itself. Using single strand conformational polymorphism (SSCP) to screen human patched in 37 sporadic BCCs, we detected mutations in one-third of the tumours. Direct sequencing of two BCCs without SSCP variants revealed mutations in those tumours as well suggesting that inactivation of patched is probably a necessary step in BCC development. Northern blots and RNA in situ hybridization showed that patched is expressed at high levels in tumour cells but not normal skin suggesting that mutational inactivation of the gene leads to overexpression of mutant transcript owing to failure of a negative feedback mechanism.