Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is recognized to play a predominant role in breast cancer prognosis. The action of VEGF is mediated by two high-affinity receptors with ligand-stimulated tyrosine kinase activity: VEGFR-1/flt-1 and VEGFR-2/flk-1, which are expressed mainly in vascular endothelial cells. To the best of our knowledge, no previous studies on the expression of these receptors in breast cancer cells has been made. We have established a new animal model for breast cancer, using a combination of 17beta-oestradiol and testosterone as 'carcinogens'. Taking advantage of the animal model, we have demonstrated that mammary cancer cells expressed not only high levels of VEGF but also, surprisingly, its receptors (fit-1 and flk-1) in mammary cancer cells. Intense reactivities to VEGF, flt-1 and flk-1 were observed in mammary cancer cells, especially in invasive mammary carcinoma. Western blot analysis confirmed the increase in flk-1 and flt-1 proteins in induced mammary cancers. Based on these observations, we hypothesize that in mammary cancer, VEGF regulates, in addition to endothelial proliferation and angiogenesis, also growth of cancer cells by an autocrine mechanism mediated through its receptors. To further verify this hypothesis, we investigated the correlation between cellular proliferation and the expression of VEGF, flt-1 and flk-1. Using double-labelling immunocytochemistry, we have shown a correlation between high VEGF activity and Ki-67 expression. The Ki-67 indices in the areas of strong and weak VEGF reactivities were 58.3% and 3.7% respectively. Similarly, there was also a correlation of strong flk-1 and Ki-67 reactivity. The Ki-67 indices for areas of strong and weak flk-1 reactivities were 53.9% and 3.1% respectively. On the other hand, there was a reverse correlation between fit-1 and Ki-67 activities. These results indicate that overexpression of VEGF and flk-1 is correlated with high Ki-67 index. The data, therefore, suggest that VEGF may act as an autocrine growth factor for mammary cancer cells in vivo and this autocrine regulatory role may be mediated through flk-1. The present study is the first report showing that VEGF may act as a growth stimulator for mammary cancer cells.