The aim of this study was to assess the effect of recombinant interferon alpha-2a (rh-IFN) on estrogen (ER) and progesterone (PR) receptor expression in patients with advanced breast cancer and the evaluation of the effect of rh-IFN pretreatment on response to endocrine therapy with tamoxifen (TAM). Between June 1990 and November 1992, 20 patients with disseminated breast cancer and with metastatic skin nodules suitable for biopsy were entered into this study. Eighteen assessable patients underwent biopsy before and 2 weeks after treatment with rh-INF. rh-INF 3 x 10(6) IU were administered subcutaneously per day. Patients with ER expression at second biopsy were subsequently treated with 20 mg TAM daily. One patient had rapid disease progression and died before rebiopsy could be performed, and an additional patient refused second biopsy. All other patients were considered assessable. Thirteen patients showed ER expression before rh-IFN treatment, and 5 PR presented with expression. Rh-IFN increased ER expression in three patients and PR in four patients. No change was observed in 8 patients for ER and in 12 patients for PR. ER expression decreased in seven patients and PR expression decreased in two patients, respectively. Two patients showed a partial remission after subsequent treatment with TAM. Adverse reactions caused by rh-IFN were mainly flu-like symptoms. In this trial we found no systematic impact of rh-IFN on hormone receptor expression and, subsequently, on the response rate in patients with advanced breast cancer.