Cyclooxygenase (COX) is the rate-limiting enzyme in the production of prostaglandins from arachidonic acid. This enzyme exists in at least two isoforms, COX-1 and COX-2. COX-1 is constitutively expressed in most tissues and plays various physiological roles. However, COX-2 expression is induced by a variety of agents, which include pro-inflammatory agents and mitogens. Evidence exists to indicate that increased expression of COX-2 occurs in several types of epithelial neoplasms. In this study, we show the effect of chronic exposure of murine skin to carcinogenic UVB on cutaneous COX-2 expression. SKH-1 mice were irradiated with 180 mJ/cm2 UVB daily for five days a week for periods ranging from 1 to 20 weeks. Nontumor bearing skin areas of irradiated mice, skin of age-matched controls and benign papillomas and malignant tumors were assessed immunohistochemically for COX-2 expression in these mice. No epidermal staining occurred in any of the non-UVB-treated controls throughout the experiment. Epidermal COX-2 expression only occurred in UVB-irradiated mice. After 1 and 5 weeks of irradiation, patchy epidermal staining mostly confined to the granular layer and stratum corneum was observed. At week 9, staining intensity had increased, particularly in the granular layer. At week 13, staining was uniformly seen in all epidermal layers with particular prominence in the basal cell layer underlying areas of visible epidermal hyperplasia. It is of interest that the most intense staining was seen in the perinuclear region of keratinocytes and at the plasma membrane. At week 20, COX-2 staining was predominant in the granular layer, although in some tissue sections, the entire epidermis was positive. In benign papillomas, staining was confined to the superficial layers of the epidermis and in squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs), patchy staining in the granular and spinous layers predominated. In general, COX-2 expression was more intense in well-differentiated SCCs than in papillomas. In summary, our results indicate that COX-2 serves as an early marker of epidermal UVB exposure and its expression increases in benign papillomas and in SCCs. These results suggest that pharmacological intervention using specific COX-2 inhibitors could have anticarcinogenic effects in UVB-induced human skin cancer. © 2001 Academic Press.