Background: Oncogenes and other molecular tumor markers that predict tumor aggressiveness may allow individualization and optimization of surgical therapy of intermediate-thickness malignant melanoma. We examined the expression of selected markers, including the HLA-DR antigen, the heat shock protein-70 (HSP-70), and the c-myc oncogene in primary melanoma and regional nodes and related these findings to metastatic potential and survival. Methods: Forty patients with primary melanoma (1.5-4.0 mm) were studied, all of whom had prophylactic lymph node dissection and were followed for 18 months to 7 years. The primary tissue and nodes were examined using immunohistochemical techniques for the presence of HLA-DR antigen and HSP-70 protein and the expression of the c-myc oncogene. Results: Of 40 patients, there were 23 with lesions 1 to 2.9 mm thick and 17 with lesions 3 to 4 mm thick. Nodal metastases were present in 25 of the 40 patients who had elective node dissection. HLA-DR antibody stained the primary tumor in 10 patients (25%), but there was no correlation with survival in this group. HLA-DR antibody stained the stroma and cellular infiltrates surrounding the primary tumor in 28 of 40 patients; in this group there was a correlation of HLA-DR staining of the peritumoral stroma with improved survival overall. HLA-DR staining of the peritumoral stroma also influenced survival when patients were stratified by tumor thickness groups 1 to 2.9 mm and 3 to 4 mm and presence of nodal metastases. HSP-70 was demonstrated in the primary tumor in 25% of patients, who were also shown to have significantly improved survival when compared with those whose primary tumor did not stain with HSP- 70. C-myc was expressed in the primary tumor in 25%, but showed no correlation with survival. None of these proteins correlated with or predicted the presence of nodal metastases. Conclusion: We conclude that the use of specific molecular-oncogene markers in intermediate-thickness primary melanoma may identify patients at high risk for conventional treatment failure and reduced survival who may profit from more aggressive surgery, adjuvant therapy, or both.