Steroid hormone (estrogen and progesterone) receptor (ER and PR) status at the time of breast carcinoma surgery is used as a marker for hormone dependency to guide adjuvant therapy. In a significant number of cases a discrepancy exists between the detected number of hormone receptors and the response to hormonal therapy. One of the explanations for this could be intratumoral heterogeneity. Our objective was to investigate the heterogeneity of steroid hormone receptor expression in breast cancer by using multiparameter flow cytometry (MP-FCM) on routinely processed formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tumors. A series of 232 routinely processed breast carcinomas were analyzed using a recently developed technique for the isolation of single cells from paraffin-embedded material. After dewaxing and rehydrating, 50-microm thick sections were heated for 2 hours at 80 degrees C in a citrate solution. Single-cell suspensions were prepared by a short pepsin digestion. The obtained single-cell suspensions were immunostained simultaneously for cytokeratin and ER or PR. Finally, DNA was stained using propidium iodide, after which the samples were analyzed on a flow cytometer. The fractions of ER- and PR-positive cells were determined in the total, as well as the G0 /G1 fraction of the diploid, and in case of nondiploid tumors, also in the G0 /G1 fraction of the aneuploid cell population. Of 232 cases, 88 (38%) were diploid, 38 (16%) were tetraploid, and 106 (46%) were aneuploid. In the diploid tumors the mean fraction of ER- and PR-positive cells was 81% and 76%, respectively. The ER- and PR-positive fractions in the total cytokeratin-positive fraction decreased significantly in the tetraploid (56% and 55%, respectively) and aneuploid tumors (both 47%, p < 0.0001). When analyzing the ER- and PR-positive fractions separately in the diploid and aneuploid cell populations of the nondiploid tumors, it became apparent that the ER and PR status in the diploid fraction of the tumor was significantly higher than in the aneuploid fraction (p < 0.0001). For the tetraploid tumors the mean ER- and PR-positive fractions were 79% and 76%, respectively, in the diploid fraction, and this decreased to 45% in the aneuploid cell subpopulation. In the aneuploid tumors this decrease was even more drastic: in the diploid cell population the ER- and PR-positive fractions were 66% and 62%, while this was 38% and 39% in the aneuploid population. These findings illustrate clearly the existence of a heterogeneous distribution of ER/PR expression in breast cancer, related to the loss of a diploid DNA index. Because of its objective quantification of subfractions within the same tumor, MP-FCM can be regarded as a superior method compared to more conventional techniques such as immunohistochemistry and biochemistry.