There are few data on the molecular pathogenesis of cutaneous T cell lymphomas. A recent allelotyping study by our group identified frequent allelic loss on 9p, 10q, and 17p including losses on 9p21 in 16% of patients with mycosis fungoides and 46% with Sezary syndrome. The P15 and P16 genes are intricately linked on 9p21 and can be inactivated in melanoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. We have therefore studied 76 patients with either mycosis fungoides or Sezary syndrome for abnormalities of these genes. DNA samples were analyzed for loss of heterozygosity, homozygous deletion, intragenic mutations, and promoter methylation. In addition P15 and P16 protein expression was assessed. Microsatellite analysis was informative in 73 of 76 cases: allelic loss on 9p21 was identified in 18 patients (25%), including 12 of 57 with mycosis fungoides (21%) and six of 16 with Sezary syndrome (37%). Single strand conformation polymorphism analysis of the entire coding regions of both genes did not identify any mutations, although two polymorphisms were identified including C613A, which has not previously been described. P15 and P16 gene promoter methylation was found in 45% and 29% of patients, respectively. Furthermore aberrant P15 protein expression was detected in 85% of patients analyzed with P15 gene abnormalities and abnormal P16 expression in 59% with P16 gene abnormalities. These abnormalities were not dependent on cutaneous stage of disease. This study suggests that abnormalities of the P15 and P16 genes are common in both early and advanced stages of mycosis fungoides and Sezary syndrome and that these genes may be inactivated by allelic loss and aberrant promoter methylation.