Résumé : BACKGROUND: The aim of this study was to investigate whether an increase in malignancy level is accompanied by significant modifications of the expression of galectin-1, galectin-3, and Thomsen-Friedenreich antigen (T antigen) as well as the expression of binding sites for these three markers in head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs). METHODS: Immunohistochemical and glycohistochemical staining reactions were carried out with antibodies, labeled lectins, and a custom-made neoglycoprotein on the basis of histologic slides from a retrospective series of 40 normal and 75 HNSCC formalin fixed, paraffin embedded tissues, and were quantitatively described with the aid of computer-assisted microscopy. RESULTS: Whatever the histologic type, the epithelial tissues in HNSCC exhibited very significantly (P < 0.01 to P < 0. 0001) lower amounts of galectin-1, galectin-3, and T antigen and their respective binding sites than their corresponding normal counterparts. The tumors of the larynx differed very significantly (P < 0.0001 to P < 0.000001) from all the other tumor types. A loss of differentiation in the HNSCCs is accompanied first by the loss of expression of galectin-3 and galectin-3-reactive sites and then by that of the T antigen and its binding site(s). The opposite feature was observed when the parameters associated with the TNM classification were taken into account. The negative lymph node HNSCCs could be distinguished (P = 0.02) from the positive lymph node HNSCCs on the basis of a loss of galectin-3 expression. The modifications occurring in the extent of expression of galectin-1 and galectin-1-reactive sites were relatively marginal in comparison with those observed for galectin-3-dependent and T- antigen-dependent staining. CONCLUSIONS: The decrease in the extent of expression of galectin-3 and galectin-3-reactive sites, T antigen and T antigen-binding sites, and, to a lesser extent, galectin-1 and galectin-1-reactive sites correlates significantly with an increasing level of clinically detectable HNSCC aggressiveness.