AIM: To assess cell proliferation in early prostate cancer and associated pathological lesions. METHODS: Using the Ki-67 antibody, the cell proliferation index was measured in early stage prostatic carcinoma in 37 incidental tumours diagnosed at transurethral prostatectomy (TURP) and in 20 low volume cancers treated by radical prostatectomy. Proliferation indexes have also been measured in areas of normal peripheral zone, transition zone hyperplasia, atrophic appearing lobules, and high grade prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia in the radical prostatectomy cases. RESULTS: In the TURP series the proliferation index correlated with grade and stage. Logistic regression analysis, however, showed that Gleason grade was the most reliable predictor of biopsy proven residual disease and clinical progression. In the radical series transition zone carcinoma the proliferation index was half that of peripheral zone carcinoma. The atrophic lobules also showed a high proliferation index of the same order as seen in the peripheral zone carcinoma. Normal peripheral zone showed the lowest proliferation index and in hyperplastic transition zone it was also less than the other areas. CONCLUSIONS: There is only limited support for the correlation of proliferation index with grade in early stage prostatic carcinoma. The findings do not suggest that proliferation index adds to the prognostic information given by grade and stage in pT1 disease. The significant difference in proliferation index in transition zone and peripheral zone carcinomas supports the morphological distinction of these tumour types and is consistent with differences in biological behaviour. The high proliferation index in lobules considered morphologically atrophic is reminiscent of previous observations in which carcinoma was spatially associated with atrophy.