BACKGROUND: Tumor protein 63 (p63) is a transcription factor of the p53 gene family involved in differentiation of several tissues including squamous epithelium. p63 immunohistochemistry is broadly used for tumor classification but published data on its expression in cancer is conflicting.
METHODS: To comprehensively catalogue p63 expression, tissue microarrays (TMAs) containing 12,620 tissue samples from 115 tumor entities and 76 normal tissue types were analyzed.
RESULTS: p63 expression was seen in various normal tissues including squamous epithelium and urothelium. At least occasional weak p63 positivity could be detected in 61 (53%) of 115 different tumor types. The frequencies of p63 positivity was highest in squamous cell carcinomas irrespective of their origin (96-100%), thymic tumors (100%), urothelial carcinomas (81-100%), basal type tumors such as basal cell carcinomas (100%), and various salivary gland neoplasias (81-100%). As a rule, p63 was mostly expressed in cancers derived from p63 positive normal tissues and mostly not detectable in tumors derived from p63 negative cancers. However, exceptions from this rule occurred. A positive p63 immunostaining in cancers derived from p63 negative tissues was unrelated to aggressive phenotype in 422 pancreatic cancers, 160 endometrium cancers and 374 ovarian cancers and might be caused by aberrant squamous differentiation or represent stem cell properties. In 355 gastric cancers, aberrant p63 expression occurred in 4% and was linked to lymph node metastasis (p = 0.0208). Loss of p63 in urothelial carcinomas - derived from p63 positive urothelium - was significantly linked to advanced stage, high grade (p < 0.0001 each) and poor survival (p < 0.0001) and might reflect clinically relevant tumor dedifferentiation.
CONCLUSION: The high prevalence of p63 expression in specific tumor types makes p63 immunohistochemistry a suitable diagnostic tool. Loss of p63 expression might constitute a feature of aggressive cancers.