We postulated that increased expression of the cell cycle regulators cyclin D1 and cyclin-dependent kinase (Cdk) 4 may be involved in the development of intestinal adenomas associated with familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). In the present study of multiple intestinal neoplasia (Min) mice and human FAP patients, the expression and distribution of cyclin D1, Cdk4, and cell proliferative activity (5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine incorporation) in normal and adenomatous intestinal epithelium were investigated. Immunohistochemical analysis of Min mouse intestine revealed that cyclin D1 immunoreactivity in the intestinal epithelium was restricted to the adenomatous areas, with a significantly higher percentage of positively staining nuclei in high-grade dysplasia versus low-grade dysplasia (54.8 +/- 18.4% versus 34.6 +/- 16.9%, P = 0.016). Morphologically normal areas of intestinal epithelia were uniformly negative for cyclin D1 immunoreactivity. Cdk4 nuclear immunoreactivity was restricted to the crypt areas in morphologically normal small intestine and colon. Conversely, Cdk4 immunoreactivity was uniformly abundant in adenomatous areas regardless of the degree of dysplasia. Increased expression of cyclin D1 and Cdk4 in adenomas was accompanied by a significantly increased 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine incorporation rate in the same areas. Immunoblot analysis of lysates from surgical specimens revealed increased levels of cyclin D1 and Cdk4 in the majority of intestinal adenomas from human FAP patients in comparison to the adjacent grossly normal colonic mucosa. Our results indicate that overexpression of cyclin D1 and Cdk4 occurs in intestinal adenomas and is associated with increased cell proliferative activity in premalignant neoplastic cells. Increased cyclin D1 immunoreactivity is associated with more severe dysplasia. These data suggest that abnormal up-regulation of these important G1 cell cycle proteins is a relatively early event in intestinal carcinogenesis and that these changes may contribute to malignant progression within those lesions.