p53-mediated signal transduction after exposure to ionizing radiation was examined in cells from patients with Nijmegen breakage syndrome (NBS), an autosomal recessive disease characterized by microcephaly, immunodeficiency, predisposition to malignancy, and a high sensitivity to ionizing radiation. NBS cells accumulated p53 protein in a dose-dependent fashion, with a peak level 2 hrs after irradiation with 5 Gy. However, the maximal level of p53 protein in NBS cells was constantly lower than in normal cells. Moreover, this attenuation of p53 induction was confirmed by decreased levels of p21WAF1 protein, which is transcriptionally regulated by p53 protein. This defective induction of p53 protein in NBS is similar to that in ataxia-telangiectasia (AT), although the induced levels of p53 protein in NBS appeared to be the intermediate between normal cells and AT cells. This moderate p53 induction in NBS cells is consistent with the relatively mild radiation sensitivity and the abnormal cell cycle regulation post-irradiation, as present in NBS. Furthermore, all NBS cell lines used here exhibited time courses of p53 induction similar to normal cells, which is in contrast with p53 induction in AT cells, where the maximum induction shows a delay of approximately 2 hrs compared with normal cells. These evidences suggest a different function of each gene product in an upstream p53 response to radiation-induced DNA damage.