The aberrant methylation of cytosine residues in the promoter region of growth regulatory genes is now widely recognized as an additional mechanism for gene inactivation in cancer cells. In this study we analyzed the methylation status of four growth regulatory genes (p16, RASSF1A, cyclinD2, 14-3-3zeta) during breast cancer progression. For this purpose invasive and noninvasive tumor cell populations as well as hyperplastic cell proliferations were isolated from a series of archival breast tissue specimens (n = 57) using laser-assisted microdissection. A new real-time polymerase chain reaction-based assay was used for the sensitive and quantitative determination of the cell-specific methylation status. We found that aberrant promoter methylation was already prevalent in pure intraductal carcinoma with different frequencies and different methylation levels for the four genes analyzed. For RASSF1A and 14-3-3zeta promoter methylation was also demonstrated in epithelial hyperplasia and intraductal papillomas. By contrast, aberrant methylation of cyclinD2 and p16 was restricted to cancerous epithelium. Increased methylation of the cyclinD2 gene was significantly associated with a higher van Nuys grade. Furthermore, when intraductal and invasive tumor cells were compared, significant quantitative changes in the methylation level were detected primarily within the cyclinD2 gene. These results demonstrate that promoter methylation is an early and frequent event in breast cancer development, but displays great quantitative and gene-specific differences, and changes in a gene-specific manner during tumor progression.