CaN19, a member of the S100 family of calcium-binding proteins, is known to be 'underexpressed' in cultured breast carcinoma-derived cell lines relative to their normal counterparts. By Northern blotting, we confirm these results and find that CaN19 is also markedly 'underexpressed' in several carcinoma-derived cell lines of the skin, oral mucosa, and urogenital tract. However, exceptions to the inverse correlation between CaN19 expression and malignancy have been identified, bringing into question the hypothesis that CaN19 functions as a tumor suppressor gene. Unexpectedly, CAN19 mRNA was strongly expressed in bulk specimens of basal and squamous cell carcinomas of the skin and oral cavity. However, in situ hybridization revealed only limited CAN19 expression in tumor cells themselves; the bulk of expression is localized to hyperplastic perilesional epidermis. Tumor cell expression of CaN19 was similar in primary and locally metastatic tumors, indicating that this gene is not necessarily down-regulated during tumor progression. Coordinate overexpression of CAN19 and the 'hyperproliferative' keratin K6a was observed only in tissues undergoing squamous differentiation. Taken together with other recent results from our laboratory, these findings suggest the hypothesis that CaN19 participates in an epidermal growth factor receptor-dependent pathway of regenerative squamous differentiation.