PLK (polo-like kinase) belongs to a family of serine/threonine kinases and represents the human counterpart of polo in Drosophila melanogaster and of CDC5 in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It is strongly involved in spindle formation and chromosome segregation during mitosis. We have shown previously that PLK mRNA expression correlates with the mitotic activity of cells and the prognosis of lung cancer patients. In this report, the level of PLK protein was analyzed using immunohistochemical techniques. PLK protein was found expressed in the nuclei of tumor cells from lung and breast cancer as well as in several tumor cell lines. Furthermore, in peripheral lymphocytes treated with phytohemagglutinin, elevated proliferative activity of the cells correlated with the up-regulation of PLK protein expression. In contrast, in U937 and HL-60 cells after induction of differentiation with phorbol ester, PLK immunostaining disappeared under conditions of terminal differentiation. Most of the PLK protein was found in the nucleus of proliferating cells with diffuse but distinct staining also in the cytoplasm. Taken together, high levels of PLK protein are associated with cellular proliferation. Combined with other proliferative and oncogene markers, PLK may be useful for improved prediction of the clinical prognosis of cancer patients and for early cancer diagnosis. Due to its activity late in the cell cycle, it may be a target for cancer chemotherapy.