Information on prognostic factors is essential to establish appropriate therapeutic modalities for soft tissue sarcoma (STS). To evaluate the biological nature and prognostic factors of STS, p53 and bcl-2 expression was immunohistochemically studied on paraffin-embedded sections from 70 patients with STS in the extremities and trunk. In addition, the degree of apoptosis was examined by in situ end-labeling. Histologic diagnoses in these cases were malignant fibrous histiocytoma in 29 cases, liposarcoma in 11, synovial sarcoma in 11, leiomyosarcoma in 5, malignant neurogenic tumor in 5, and others in 9. Tumor cells in 31 of 70 cases (44%) showed positive nuclear staining for p53 protein. There was no correlation between p53 expression and tumor size, histologic grade, argyrophilic nucleolar organizer region (AgNOR) count, cellularity and extent of neerosis. Expression of p53 did not correlate with survival of patients. Tumor cells in 24 of 56 cases (43%) were positive for bcl-2 protein expression. The frequency of bcl-2 expression in the tumor cells showed a direct proportion to tumor size (> or = 10 vs. < 10 cm) but inverse proportion to AgNOR counts and cellularity. The 5-year survival rate in patients with bcl-2-positive tumors (87%) was more favorable than in those with bcl-2-negative tumors (53%; p < 0.05). The frequency of apoptosis in low-grade STS was significantly higher than that in the intermediate and high-grade STS (p < 0.001). Extent of necrosis, a well-known prognostic indicator in STS, was not correlated with the frequency of apoptosis. Multivariate analysis showed that cellularity, bcl-2 and AgNOR counts were independent prognostic factors in patients with STS. The current study revealed that STS with a higher expression of bcl-2 had lower proliferative activity and larger size than those without. Immunohistochemical detection of bcl-2 is useful for predicting prognosis in patients with STS.