Subcutaneous panniculitic T cell lymphoma (SCPTCL) is characterized by primary involvement of the subcutaneous fat in a manner mimicking panniculitis. We studied 16 cases of this lymphoma to define its immunophenotypical profile as well as cellular origin. Involvement of the subcutaneous fat in a lacelike pattern with neoplastic cells rimming individual fat spaces was present in all cases. All 16 cases were of T cell phenotype. Thirteen of the 16 cases were CD8+, whereas three were negative for both CD4 and CD8. Twelve cases were stained for betaF1; of these, eight were betaF1+ and four were betaF1-. Focal staining for CD56 and CD30 was seen in 2 of 13 and two of eight cases, respectively. Intense diffuse positivity for the cytotoxic granular proteins T cell intracellular antigen-1 (TIA-1) and perforin was present in all cases, indicating an origin from cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Ten cases studied for Epstein-Barr viral sequences were negative. Eight of 9 cases with amplifiable DNA showed a clonal TCR gamma gene rearrangement by polymerase chain reaction. Controls included seven cases of benign panniculitis and seven other peripheral T cell lymphomas involving the skin and subcutaneous tissues: two peripheral T cell lymphomas, not otherwise specified (PTL,NOS), four anaplastic large cell lymphomas (ALCL), one T/NK cell lymphoma. The seven cases of panniculitis lacked cytological atypia and were characterized by an admixture of CD4+ and CD8+ cells with interspersed aggregates of L26+ B cells. Only infrequent cells showed staining for TIA-1 and perforin. In the control cases of T cell lymphoma, the infiltrate had a tendency for dermal and sometimes even epidermal involvement, with sheeting out of malignant cells, in contrast to the characteristic subcutaneous localization and rimming of fat spaces noted in SCPTCL. The two PTL, NOS were CD4+ and negative for both TIA-1 and perforin. Although the remaining controls expressed TIA-1 and perforin, in keeping with their cytotoxic T or natural killer (NK) cell origin, histological and other immunophenotypical features allowed distinction from SCPTCL. Five cases of SCPTCL were also stained for apoptosis using a tdt-mediated end labeling kit. All cases showed numerous positive apoptotic bodies, suggesting apoptosis as the mechanism of cell death in these tumors. Our study indicates that SCPTCL constitutes a distinctive clinicopathological entity derived from cytotoxic T lymphocytes and should be differentiated from other benign and malignant lymphoid infiltrates involving the subcutis. The apoptosis seen in these tumors may be mediated by release of cytotoxic granular proteins.