CD44 is a family of cell surface transmembrane glycoproteins members which differ in the extracellular part by sequences derived by alternative splicing of 10 variant exons (v1-v10). CD44 proteins containing such variant sequences have been implicated in tumor metastasis formation. Here, we have evaluated the expression of CD44 variants by immuno-histochemistry in primary breast cancer samples of 237 node-negative and 230 node-positive patients. For the analysis of samples derived from node-negative patients, the exon-specific antibodies used were DIII, vff7 and vff18 (v6), vff17 (v7/v8), fw11.24 (v9) and vff16 (v10). With the different antibodies which recognize v6 epitopes, the majority of tumors were positively stained (> or = 65% of the tumors) with varying intensities. Thirty-nine percent of the tumors were positively stained with the antibody vff16, and approximately half of the tumors with the antibodies vff17 and fw11.24. The expression of CD44 v6 epitopes in tumors from node-negative patients was associated with a favorable prognosis, both upon univariate and multivariate analysis. The expression of CD44 v7/8, v9 or v10 epitopes was not significantly related with relapse-free survival. Samples from node-positive patients were only examined with the antibodies vff7, vff17 and vff18. The staining with none of these antibodies was correlated with the length of relapse-free survival of the patients. Our data suggest that, generally, the usefulness of knowledge of CD44 variant expression is of limited value for assessing the risk of relapse in patients with primary breast cancer. However, the expression of exon v6 of CD44 may be a marker to identify patients with a relatively favorable prognosis in node-negative patients.