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Epidemiological evidence suggests that alcohol intake, use of tobacco, ingestion of mycotoxins and nitrosamines and nutritional deficiencies are high-risk factors for the development of oesophageal cancer. Similarly, viral infections have been postulated to play a role in some tumours. However, the molecular events underlying the development of oesophageal carcinoma are poorly understood as yet. Loss of p53 tumour-suppressor gene function has been found in different human malignancies, and it can occur in a variety of ways, including gene mutation and interaction with the E6 protein of oncogenic human papillomaviruses (HPVs). Because the oesophageal mucosa is potentially exposed to mutagens and HPVs, we studied DNA samples derived from nine HPV-positive squamous cell carcinomas and 12 HPV-negative tumours. Exons 5-9 of the p53 gene containing phylogenetically conserved domains were examined using the polymerase chain reaction-single-strand conformation polymorphism (PCR-SSCP) technique. HPV detection was done using DNA in situ hybridisation with biotin-labelled HPV DNA probes. Mutations were detected in eight (38%) out of the 21 cases. Three mutations were found in exons 5/6, three in exon 7 and two in exon 8/9. Six (50%) of the 12 HPV-negative carcinomas showed p53 mutations. Two (22.2%) of the nine HPV-positive carcinomas were found to contain p53 mutations as well; one contained HPV 16 DNA sequences and showed p53 mutation in exon 8/9, and the other was HPV 6/11 positive with the mutation in exon 5/6. Although mutations were more common in HPV-negative tumours (50.0% vs 22.2%), the difference in p53 mutations in HPV-positive and -negative tumours did not reach statistical significance (P = 0.1946). These data indicate that inactivation of the p53 gene is a frequent event in oesophageal squamous cell carcinomas and such an inactivation might be an important molecular pathway for the development of oesophageal cancer. The findings of p53 mutations in HPV-positive oesophageal carcinomas suggest that HPV and p53 mutation were not mutually exclusive events. The presence of frequent mutations of p53 gene in both HPV-positive and -negative oesophageal carcinomas suggests a dominant role of environmental carcinogens in oesophageal carcinogenesis.