The molecular mechanisms leading to androgen-independent growth in prostate cancer (PC) are poorly understood. Androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) results physiologically in a decrease in proliferation and an increase in programmed cell death (PCD)/apoptosis. The aim of our study was to get more insight into these processes in prostatic carcinomas before and after ADT. For this purpose, immunohistologic staining for the androgen receptor (AR) molecule, the Ki-67 antigen, the bcl-2 oncoprotein, the p53 protein and its physiologic effector, p21/WAF1, was performed on archival material. PCD was visualized by enzymatic detection of DNA fragmentation. Specimens from 69 PC patients after ADT were studied in correlation to histopathology and prognosis. In 42 cases, corresponding tumour tissue from the untreated primary tumours could be analysed comparatively. Before ADT, histologic grade was associated with Ki-67 index (P < 0.0001, Spearman correlation) and PCD rate (P < 0.05, Spearman correlation). Ki-67 index correlated with PCD rate (P < 0.05, Spearman correlation) and p21/WAF1 expression (P < 0.01, Fisher's exact test). p21/WAF1 expression was the only statistically significant prognostic factor for shorter survival (P < 0.002, log-rank test). All p21/WAF1-positive cases showed high Ki-67 index and high histologic grade. After ADT, loss of AR expression was associated with high Ki-67 index, whereas histologic signs of regression correlated negatively with Ki-67 index (P < 0.001, Pearson chi2 test). p21/WAF1 expression increased significantly (P < 0.02, McNemar test) and correlated with p53 accumulation (P < 0.0001, Pearson chi2 test). Most significant prognostic parameter after conventional ADT was high-rate p21/WAF1 expression (> 50% of tumour cells; P < 0.00001, log-rank test). This study demonstrates that p21/WAF1 overexpression before and after ADT characterizes a subgroup of advanced PC with paradoxically high proliferation rate and significantly worse clinical outcome. This finding might be clinically useful for planning therapy in these patients.