Bcl-X, a Bcl-2-related protein, is a potent antagonist of apoptosis in its long splice variant (Bcl-X(L)). The present study was performed to determine its expression in preneoplastic and neoplastic lesions of the esophagus, its correlation with other members of the Bcl-2 family, and its impact on the outcome of surgically treated esophageal cancer patients. Samples of normal esophageal squamous epithelium (n = 10), severe squamous cell dysplasias (n = 19), carcinomas in situ (n = 14), invasive squamous cell carcinomas (n = 172), and lymph node metastases (n = 21) were immunohistochemically analyzed for Bcl-X(L) expression using a polyclonal anti-Bcl-X(L) antibody. The immunostaining was evaluated according to a score system (0-12 points) based on the percentage of positive tumor cells and the relative immunostaining intensity. Cytoplasmic staining for Bcl-X(L) protein was invariably found in all cell layers of the normal esophageal squamous epithelium. In contrast, a considerable portion of preneoplastic and neoplastic lesions display a decreased Bcl-X(L) expression as compared with that in the normal esophageal epithelium. On comparison of the amount of Bcl-X(L) expression between the different types of lesions, however, no significant differences were found between severe squamous cell dysplasias (mean immunoreactive score +/- SD, 5.2 +/- 1.8), carcinomas in situ (5.2 +/- 2.2), invasive carcinomas (4.5 +/- 2.8), and lymph node metastases (4.2 +/- 2.6). In invasive carcinomas, Bcl-X(L) expression decreased continuously with decreasing tumor differentiation (P = 0.0001) and was also directly correlated with bcl-2-associated X protein expression (P = 0.0001). On the contrary, an inverse correlation was found between Bcl-X(L) expression and Bcl-2 protein expression (P = 0.0001). No correlation was found between Bcl-X(L) expression and the parameters pT category, pN category, and tumor size. In the univariate survival analysis, patients with low immunoreactive scores (< or = 4) of Bcl-X(L) expression in the tumor tissue showed lower 2-year and 5-year survival rates than patients with high immunoreactive scores (> 4; P = 0.0485). In multivariate survival analysis, however, only the parameters pN category and pT category, but not Bcl-X(L) expression, could be verified as independent prognostic factors. This tendency of decreasing levels of an antiapoptotic protein toward unfavorable outcome is supported by an increasing number of studies on the role of Bcl-2, another antiapoptotic protein, and must be interpreted against the backdrop of apoptosis as a result of the interaction of many cell death-promoting and protecting proteins.