Mutations of the p53 tumour suppressor gene occur in 20% of chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) patients in blastic crisis, but it is still uncertain whether this inactivation plays a role in the pathogenesis of blastic transformation or in maintaining the leukaemic proliferation in CML, as it does in several solid tumours. We have previously shown that more than 50% of both normal and CML CD34+ cells express the p53 protein. However, haemopoietic cells at different phases of the cell cycle express p53 with different conformations, suggesting that the function of p53 may be closely regulated during the cell cycle. In order to elucidate the mechanism by which p53 suppresses cell proliferation, we evaluated the effects of inhibiting p53 expression on cell cycle and cell kinetics of chronic phase CML (n = 12) and normal (n = 7) bone marrow light-density cells and purified CD34+ progenitors by using an 18-mer modified antisense oligonucleotide which targets the region covering the six base pairs immediately before the first codon and the first four coding codons of p53, We found that the number of cells positive for the cell cycle-specific nuclear antigen Ki67 and for the BrdU monoclonal antibody (McAb) was significantly increased after p53 antisense oligonucleotide treatment. At the same time, p53 protein expression was completely abrogated in both light-density and CD34+ cells. In addition, DNA analysis by flow cytometry demonstrated that the number of cells in quiescent phases of the cell cycle (G0-G1) was significantly decreased after exposure of light-density cells to p53 antisense oligomers, whereas the number of cells in S or G2-M phases was increased. Furthermore, the longer the incubation time the higher the increase in cell proliferation. Treatment of CML cells with p53 antisense oligomers also resulted in significantly increased numbers of CFU-GM colonies. Our data suggest that p53 is a negative regulator of cell proliferation and its action is mediated through changes in cell cycle kinetics, mainly before the S phase. We can further speculate that the loss of p53 function, at the time of blastic crisis of CML, may play a role, in combination with other genetic changes (p210 BCR/ABL, Rb gene abnormality, others to be defined), in inducing disturbances in cell proliferation, differentiation, and apoptosis.