Medullary carcinoma (MC) of the breast is considered to carry a more favorable prognosis than other subtypes of infiltrating ductal carcinoma This is a biological paradox because its clinical behavior contrasts with its anaplastic morphology. MC is characterized by a dense lymphocytic infiltrate. In this study, we determined the cytotoxic potential and activity of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) in MC by CD3, CD8, TIA-1, and granzyme B immunostaining on paraffin-embedded sections. Fourteen cases of typical MC (TMC) and 15 cases of atypical MC (AMC) classified according to Ridolfi criteria, and 19 cases of poorly differentiated infiltrating ductal carcinoma (PDC) were studied. TILs were quantified separately into two groups: cells infiltrating tumor nests and cells within stroma The number of CD8+ and TIA-1+ cells infiltrating tumor cell nests were markedly increased in TMC and AMC, as opposed to the PDC subgroup (159.6+/-132.8; 77.4+/-59.3; 9.4+/-10.5 and 171.2+/-152.4; 72.3+/-55.0; 10.8+/-12.7 per high power field, respectively). The number of tumor infiltrating granzyme B+ cells was significantly greater in TMC and AMC, as compared with the PDC subgroup (82.1+/-64.9, 33.9+/-19.7, and 3.1+/-5.1, respectively). Although no significant difference was found between the number of stromal CD3+ and CD8+ lymphocytes among the three subgroups, stromal granzyme B+ cells were significantly elevated in TMC and AMC as compared with the PDC subgroup. Finally, the relative proportion of granzyme B+ as opposed to CD3+ intraepithelial and stromal lymphocytes was greater in TMC and AMC as compared with the PDC subgroup (0.52+/-0.29; 0.47+/-0.31; 0.19+/-0.18 and 0.18+/-0.11; 0.13+/-0.11; 0.06+/-0.05, respectively). The presence of increased numbers of activated cytotoxic lymphocytes in MC of the breast may be a key mechanism active in the host versus tumor response leading to improved prognosis.