BACKGROUND: The invasion of cancer cells into the surrounding normal tissue is one of the defining features of cancer. While the phenomena of tumour budding, epithelial-mesenchymal transition and the presence of myofibroblasts have independently been shown to be related to a poor prognosis of oral carcinomas, their relationship has not been examined in detail. METHODS: Paraffin-embedded tissues from 28 patients with oral squamous cell carcinomas were stained with antibodies to cytokeratin, α-SMA, vimentin, E-cadherin, N-cadherin and Twist and evaluated for their expression in relation to invasive cancer cells and the surrounding tumour stroma. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: A direct, histological relationship between invading, budding tumour cells and myofibroblasts was occasionally seen but was not a general feature. Most of the budding tumour cells at the invasive front had a decreased expression of E-cadherin, but we did not find that this was associated with a consistent or clear increase in either N-cadherin or vimentin. We therefore suggest that the budding of tumour cells is not dependent upon either myofibroblasts or a complete epithelial-mesenchymal transition and that these phenomena most likely represent separate processes in tumour progression.