AIMS: Spontaneous apoptosis and expression of the apoptotic regulatory proteins Bax, Bcl-x, and Bcl-2 were investigated in 50 colorectal carcinomas. The p53 genotypes/phenotypes and BAX genotypes were also determined, and possible associations of these with apoptosis and/or with expression of the different apoptotic regulatory proteins were studied. METHODS: Terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT) mediated dUTP labelling of DNA fragments was used to detect apoptotic tumour cells in sections and peroxidase immunohistochemistry was used to assess protein expression. p53 genotype/phenotype was determined using constant denaturant gel electrophoresis/immunoblotting and bax genotype was determined using polymerase chain reaction based methods. RESULTS: The distribution of tumour apoptotic indices was bimodal with a natural cut off at 1.0% (range, 0.0-5.4%); the median fraction of apoptotic tumour cells was 0.8%. Tumour apoptosis was not associated significantly with tumour DNA ploidy status. Normal mucosal tissue had less than 0.1% apoptotic cells. Staining intensities for Bax, Bcl-x, and Bcl-2 were strong; that is, equivalent to or greater than positive normal mucosal cells, in 11 of 50, 20 of 49, and 20 of 48 carcinomas. Frameshift mutations in the bax gene were detected in three of 42 tumours analysed, all of which were DNA diploid, and Bax protein expression in these tumours was absent or very low. Bax, Bcl-x, and Bcl-2 protein expression were not correlated with tumour apoptosis or tumour DNA ploidy status. p53 was expressed in 34 of 50 tumours and p53 gene mutations were detected in 22 of 29 p53 positive tumours analysed. Apoptosis was significantly lower in a greater number of p53 positive tumours than p53 negative tumours. In addition, Bcl-2 protein expression was significantly higher in a greater number of p53 positive tumours compared with p53 negative tumours. Bax and Bcl-x protein expression were not significantly associated with p53 phenotype/genotype. CONCLUSIONS: The results indicate that acquisition of a p53 phenotype is associated with lower spontaneous apoptosis and higher expression of Bcl-2. The results also suggest that p53 is not a major determinant for Bax expression in colorectal carcinomas in vivo.
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