Recent clinical studies estimate that 60-70% of human ovarian and breast cancers overexpress the estrogen receptor (ER). However, despite the established mitogenic effects of estrogen in these tumors, proliferative markers of hormone action are limited. In the current study, we report that the growth stimulatory cytokine stromal cell-derived factor 1 (SDF-1) is a bona fide target of estrogen action in ERalpha-positive human ovarian and breast cancer cells. Notably, estradiol treatment of BG-1 (ovarian carcinoma) and MCF-7 (breast carcinoma) cells leads to rapid and robust induction of the SDF-1alpha and beta isoforms. This response is blocked by the pure ER antagonist ICI 182,780 and is not apparent in ER-negative ovarian cells, indicating that SDF-1 regulation is ERalpha mediated. Treatment with the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide had no effect on estradiol induction of induction of SDF-1 mRNA levels mRNA levels, demonstrating that SDF-1 is a direct target of ERalpha. SDF-1 protein levels, although undetectable under basal conditions, were strikingly increased by hormone both intracellularly and in the media of cultured BG-1 and MCF-7 cells. In cell proliferation assays, the mitogenic effects of estradiol were neutralized by addition of an SDF-1 antibody and mimicked by the addition of exogenous SDF-1 protein, indicating that SDF-1 mediates the proliferative actions of hormone. Furthermore, activation of the SDF-1 receptor CXCR4 stimulated BG-1 and MCF-7 cell proliferation in a manner comparable to estradiol. Taken together, these results demonstrate a novel estrogen-mediated paracrine pathway for inducing cancer cell proliferation and suggest that SDF-1 and CXCR4 may represent novel therapeutic targets in ERalpha-positive ovarian and breast tumors.