Adjuvant antioestrogen therapy with tamoxifen is recommended for all women following breast-conserving surgery for ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) to reduce local recurrence, despite 50% of lesions being oestrogen receptor (OR) negative. We have investigated the response to hormone manipulation in DCIS by studying changes in epithelial proliferation and progesterone receptor (PR) expression as surrogate molecular markers of treatment effects in DCIS of known OR status. Women were identified who had undergone diagnostic core biopsy followed by surgery for DCIS 14-41 days later. Ki67 (a measure of epithelial cell proliferation) and PR expression were determined by immunohistochemistry on paired paraffin sections of the core biopsy and operative specimens for each patient, with OR and HER-2 measured on the operative specimen. Women were divided into three groups according to whether they had changed hormone therapy (stopped hormone replacement therapy (HRT), group 1), continued taking HRT (group 2) or were not taking HRT (group 3) between core biopsy and surgery. In OR-positive (but not in OR-negative) DCIS after oestrogen withdrawal (group 1), a fall in the mean cell proliferation (P&<0.01) was observed. A fall in PR expression between core biopsy and surgery was also seen in this group (P=0.02). No change in either mean cell proliferation or PR expression was seen in the other two groups in OR-positive or -negative DCIS. The fall in proliferation and PR expression occurred regardless of HER-2 status. In conclusion, a biological response to hormone manipulation is only seen in OR-positive DCIS tumours. Any clinical value of antioestrogen therapy is likely to be restricted to this group.