We analyzed the tumor suppressor gene product, p53, in elderly patients with myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and in overt leukemia patients after transformation from MDS using immunohistochemical techniques. We examined 52 MDS patients (mean age 79 years, range 68 to 96) from the time of initial diagnosis to death or development of overt leukemia. p53 protein was detected by immunohistochemistry (IHC) in 8/52 patients (15%) at initial diagnosis: 1/26 with refractory anemia (RA), 0/4 with RA with ringed sideroblasts, 3/11 with RA with an excess of blasts (RAEB), 3/8 with RAEB in transformation, and 1/3 with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. We also analyzed gene mutations in patients with positive IHC. p53 mutations were detected in 3/8 (38%) patients. IHC-positive patients had a significantly higher incidence of leukemic transformation and the presence of a complex karyotype with monosomy 17. IHC-positive cells included blasts as well as mature myeloid cells, erythroblasts, and megakaryocytes. Scrutiny of our data in combination with previous data revealed that patients with positive IHC in multilineage cells were older than those in whom positivity was noted mostly in myeloblasts. This suggests that p53 IHC positivity with a multilineage pattern may be a characteristic of MDS in older patients.