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Loss of expression and function of the E-cadherin/catenin membrane complex can result in loss of cell adhesion and contribute to invasive or metastatic potential in carcinomas. The aim of this study was to examine the expression of alpha- and beta-catenin and E-cadherin in Barrett's esophagus with and without dysplasia and in esophageal adenocarcinomas and to identify any relationship with tumor growth pattern and clinical outcome. Immunoperoxidase staining for alpha- and beta-catenin and E-cadherin was performed on specimens of Barrett's esophagus with and without dysplasia and on 54 esophageal adenocarcinoma specimens. Membranous staining for all of the components was seen in normal gastric and esophageal mucosa. Abnormal expression of beta-catenin, alpha-catenin, and E-cadherin was significantly associated with higher degrees of dysplasia in Barrett's esophagus. Fourteen of 16 cases of high grade dysplasia and 7 of 7 cases of intramucosal carcinoma showed abnormal expression of beta-catenin, compared with 3 of 6 cases indefinite for dysplasia and 11 of 17 cases with low grade dysplasia (P = 0.022). Similar results were seen for expression of alpha-catenin (P < .01) and E-cadherin (P = .049). In esophageal adenocarcinomas, preserved expression of these proteins occurred more frequently in well-differentiated tumors; abnormal expression was more common in diffusely infiltrative poorly differentiated tumors that did not form glands. Focal nuclear staining for beta-catenin was present in two high-grade dysplasias, two intramucosal carcinomas, and five adenocarcinomas. No survival advantage was demonstrated for patients whose tumors retained expression of these cell adhesion components. In conclusion, abnormal expression of the E-cadherin/catenin membrane complex is common in esophageal adenocarcinoma and occurs early in the dysplasia/carcinoma sequence in Barrett's esophagus, indicating that disturbances in this cell adhesion complex might be important in tumorigenesis and tumor progression in this disorder.