Fresh, superficial transitional cell carcinomas (TCCs) of low-grade atypia (3 grade I, Ta; 6 grade II, Ta), as well as primary cultures derived from them were labeled with [35S]methionine for 16 h, between 2 and 6 days after inoculation. Whole protein extracts were subjected to IEF (isoelectric focusing) two-dimensional polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (2-D PAGE) followed by autoradiography. Proteins were identified by a combination of proteomic technologies that included microsequencing, mass spectrometry, 2-D PAGE immunoblotting and comparison with the bladder TCC protein database available on the internet (http://biobase.dk/cgi-bin/celis). Comparison of the IEF 2-D gel protein profiles of fresh tumors and their primary cultures showed that the overall expression profiles were strikingly similar, although differing significantly in the levels of several proteins whose rate of synthesis was differentially regulated in at least 85% of the tumor/culture pairs as a result of the short-term culturing. Most of the proteins affected by culturing were upregulated and among them we identified components of the cytoskeleton (keratin 18, gelsolin and tropomyosin 3), a molecular chaperone (hsp 28), aldose reductase, GST pi, metastasin, synuclein, the calreticulin precursor and three polypeptides of unknown identity. Only four major proteins were downregulated, and these included two fatty acid-binding proteins (FABP:FABP5 and A-FABP) which are thought to play a role in growth control, the differentiation-associated keratin 20, and the calcium-binding protein annexin V. Proteins that were differentially regulated in only some of the cultured tumors included alpha-enolase, triosphosphate isomerase, members of the 14-3-3 family, hnRNPs F and H, PGDH, hsp (heat-shock protein) 60, BIP, the interleukin-1 receptor antagonist, the nucleolar protein B23, as well as several proteins of yet unknown identity. The suitability of in vitro bladder tumor culture models to study complex biological phenomena such as malignancy and invasion is discussed.