In the rat mammary carcinogenesis model, premalignant lesions known as intraductal proliferations (IDPs) are detectable within a few weeks after carcinogen treatment. These early transformed colonies are the precursors for the eventual formation of carcinomas. Our past research indicated that methylselenocysteine added to the diet of rats reduced the development of IDPs of all sizes (the size of each IDP was estimated operationally by the number of 5-micron serial sections showing the same pathology). The appearance of an IDP lesion represents a balance between cell proliferation and cell death. The modulation of these two cellular events by methylselenocysteine was investigated. The abdominal-inguinal mammary gland was excised 6 weeks after MNU administration. Proliferation and apoptosis were evaluated by BrdU labeling and the TUNEL assay, respectively. The expression levels of several cell cycle and apoptosis regulatory proteins, including cyclin D1, cyclin A, p27, p16, bcl-2, box and bak, were also assessed. All of the above endpoints were quantified by immunohistochemistry in paraffin-embedded sections. The results showed that the magnitude of the response to methylselenocysteine intervention seemed to depend on the size of the IDP lesion. For the purpose of this study, the small and large lesions were classified as those containing < or = 30 or > 30 serial sections, respectively. With the small lesions, methylselenocysteine significantly inhibited BrdU labeling and the expression of cyclin D1 and cyclin A, but increased the expression of p27. Interesting, only p27 was upregulated in the larger IDP lesions, while BrdU labeling and the cyclins were not affected. It is possible that the transformed phenotype becomes less sensitive to selenium-mediated arrest of proliferation once it progresses to a more advanced pathological stage. In contrast, methylselenocysteine stimulated apoptosis (TUNEL assay) by 3 to 4 fold, and this increase was evident in both the small and large IDP lesions. Consistent with the induction of apoptosis, a reduced expression of bcl-2 was also observed in the methylselenocysteine group. In summary, our data suggest that exposure to methylselenocysteine blocks clonal expansion of premalignant lesions at an early stage. This is achieved by simultaneously modulating certain molecular pathways that are responsible for inhibiting cell proliferation and enhancing apoptosis.