Pharmacologic induction of cancer cell differentiation has potential in the treatment of breast cancer. Doxorubicin, a widely used anthracycline antibiotic, was previously reported to induce differentiation of MCF-7 breast cancer cells. We demonstrate in this study that inhibition of MCF-7 breast cancer cell growth by low dose doxorubicin (0.01 microg/ml) was accompanied by an increase in cytokeratin 8/18 and milk fat globule membrane protein expression, biomarkers for differentiation of breast cancer, as well as an increase in JNK/SAPK phosphorylation. High dose doxorubicin (10.0 microg/ml) induced apoptosis in these cells. Overexpression of dominant-inhibitory forms of JNK1 and c-Jun blocked both the differentiation and apoptotic effects of doxorubicin. These results suggest that JNK/SAPK pathway signaling plays a prominent role in doxorubicin-induced cell cycle withdrawal, differentiation and control of apoptosis in this cell system. These findings support the possibility that JNK/SAPK pathway activation may be a means of therapeutic intervention in breast cancer.