Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are chemopreventive for colorectal cancer. This effect is due in part to their ability to inhibit the inducible isoform of cyclooxygenase (COX-2). However, the cellular expression and role of COX-2 in the premalignant stages of colorectal tumourigenesis is unclear. COX-2 expression was assessed in 35 human colorectal adenomas and 38 sporadic invasive colorectal adenocarcinomas. Adenomas were classified as small (<5 mm in diameter), medium (5–10 mm), and large (>10 mm). All tissues were paraffin-embedded and formalin-fixed. COX-2 protein expression was determined using immunohistochemistry. COX-2 was detected in the epithelial cells in 35 of 38 carcinomas (92%) and in 8 of 8 (100%) lymph node metastases. All of the epithelial cells expressed COX-2 in 30 of 35 (86%) carcinomas and in 100% of the lymph node metastases. Twenty-three of 35 (66%) adenomas expressed COX-2 in the tumour epithelium. With an increase in the size of adenoma (<5 mm, 5–10 mm, >10 mm), there was an increase in (i) the proportion of adenomas with immunoreactive COX-2 in the epithelium (p = 0.036)—this was 38% in small adenomas and 82% in large adenomas; (ii) the extent of epithelial COX-2 staining within a given tumour (p = 0.003)—100% of epithelial cells were COX-2-positive in 15% of small adenomas and in 73% of large adenomas; and (iii) the intensity of epithelial COX-2 staining (p = 0.009)—strong COX-2 staining occurred in 8% of small adenomas and in 36% of large adenomas. COX-2 immunoreactivity was not detected in adjacent normal epithelium but was apparent in fibroblasts and inflammatory mononuclear cells of adjacent normal, adenoma, and carcinoma tissue. These results suggest that epithelial COX-2 activity is important for the growth and/or survival of adenomatous epithelial cells from an adenoma diameter of less than 5 mm and that there is a selective advantage for adenoma epithelial cells expressing higher levels of COX-2. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.