Surrogate end point biomarkers for risk assessment and efficacy of potential chemopreventive agents are needed to improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of chemoprevention trials. It is imperative to develop the best clinical breast model for translational surrogate end point biomarker studies, especially with respect to accrual feasibility. We have initiated a prospective study to develop biomarkers for tamoxifen and N-[4-hydroxyphenyl] retinamide by administering either a placebo or both drugs for 2-4 weeks to women with ductal carcinoma in situ or early invasive cancers in the interval between the initial diagnostic core biopsy and definitive surgery. The principle end point is pretreatment versus posttreatment tumor levels of Ki-67; a number of other exploratory markers will also be examined. The planned target sample size is 100 patients. Between February 1997 and February 2000, 4514 women who had either an abnormal mammogram or a diagnosed breast cancer were screened for the study. Of these 4514 screened patients, 52 (1%) were registered on the study. Major factors of nonparticipation in the remaining 4462 women were as follows: (a) no evidence of malignancy (2081 patients; 46%); (b) ineligible per protocol criteria (575 patients; 13%); (c) preoperative chemotherapy/tamoxifen (520 patients; 11%); (d) surgery scheduling conflict (360 patients; 8%); (e) outside needle biopsy (221 patients; 5%); (f) no residual disease after excisional biopsy (345 patients; 8%); and (g) second opinion only (123 patients; 3%). Other nonparticipation factors included fine needle aspiration only, refusal, tumor size > 2 cm, and estrogen replacement therapy (35 patients each; 2% each). The protocol was amended in midstudy to allow outside needle biopsy, tumor > 2 cm, and estrogen replacement therapy. Accrual to biomarker (nontherapeutic) protocols with delay in definitive cancer surgery is challenging but feasible. Although some accrual problems remain, we have nonetheless succeeded in recruiting 50% of our target sample size in a 3-year period.