Oral squamous cell cancers (OSCCs) have a high local recurrence rate, partly due to problems in the recognition of minimal residual disease. The use of molecular markers is shown to increase the sensitivity of detection of residual malignant cells in tumour margins of OSCC. p53 immunohistochemistry was combined with in situ hybridization for chromosomes 1 and 7 to determine the presence of genetically unstable cells in resection specimens of OSCC containing invasive cancer. An increased frequency of genetically aberrant cells was observed, as detected by p53 overexpression and/or aneusomy, with histological progression of normal mucosa via hyperplasia to dysplasia. Of clinical importance was the finding that 11 of 20 resection margins, all of which were initially diagnosed as being tumour-free, were found to contain genetically aberrant (pre)malignant cells. In these areas, closer histological examination of the genetically aberrant compartment within these margins often also revealed small dysplastic areas that were missed in the initial diagnosis, showing that this genetic approach can assist in diagnosis. Copyright © 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.