Members of the NF-kappa B/Rel transcription factor family have been shown recently to be required for cellular transformation by oncogenic Ras and by other oncoproteins and to suppress transformation-associated apoptosis. Furthermore, NF-kappa B has been shown to be activated by several oncoproteins including HER2/Neu, a receptor tyrosine kinase often expressed in human breast cancer. Human breast cancer cell lines, human breast tumors and normal adjacent tissue were analysed by gel mobility shift assay, immunoblotting of nuclear extracts and immunohistochemistry for activation of NF-kappa B. Furthermore, RNA levels for NF-kappa B-activated genes were analysed in order to determine if NF-kappa B is functionally active in human breast cancer. Our data indicate that the p65/RelA subunit of NF-kappa B is activated (i.e., nuclear) in breast cancer cell lines. However, breast tumors exhibit an absence or low level of nuclear p65/RelA but show activated c-Rel, p50 and p52 as compared to nontumorigenic adjacent tissue. Additionally, the I kappa B homolog Bcl-3, which functions to stimulate transcription with p50 or p52, was also activated in breast tumors. There was no apparent correlation between estrogen receptor status and levels of nuclear NF-kappa B complexes. Transcripts of NF-kappa B-regulated genes were found elevated in breast tumors, as compared to adjacent normal tissue, indicating functional NF-kappa B activity. These data suggest a potential role for a subset of NF-kappa B and I kappa B family proteins, particularly NF-kappa B/p52 and Bcl-3, in human breast cancer. Additionally, the activation of functional NF-kappa B in these tumors likely involves a signal transduction pathway distinct from that utilized by cytokines.