Abnormalities of the p53 tumour suppressor gene are thought to be central to the development of a high proportion of human tumours. This article reviews current understanding of its function and potential clinical significance.


Material was identified from previous review articles, references cited in original papers, a Medline search of the literature over the 12 months to January 1998, and by scanning the latest issues of relevant journals.

Results and conclusion

p53 is considered to be a stress response gene, its product (the p53 protein) acting to induce cell cycle arrest or apoptosis in response to DNA damage, thereby maintaining genetic stability in the organism. These functions are executed by a complex and incompletely understood series of steps known as the ‘p53 pathway’, part of which involves induction of the expression of a number of other genes. As p53 is the most commonly mutated gene in human cancer, it has attracted a great deal of interest as a prognostic factor, diagnostic tool and therapeutic target. However, despite many promising studies, its potential in practical cancer management has still to be realized. © 1998 British Journal of Surgery Society Ltd