Using permanent-section immunohistochemistry, we investigated the role of HER-2/neu in the development and progression of human breast cancer by measuring its overexpression in a series of hyperplastic (n = 30), dysplastic (n = 15), and malignant neoplastic (n = 708) lesions of ductal epithelium and by evaluating the relationships between overexpression and clinicopathologic features known to have prognostic significance in these lesions. The neoplasms included pure ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS; n = 59) and infiltrating ductal carcinoma (IDC; n = 649). The latter were all node negative and stratified into IDC combined (n = 237) or not combined (n = 412) with a "significant amount" of DCIS (defined as DCIS greater than or equal to 10% of total tumor cellularity). Overexpression of HER-2/neu was not observed in any of the hyperplastic or dysplastic lesions. In contrast, it was present in 56% of pure DCIS and in 77% of the comedo subtype of this group. Only 15% of IDC overexpressed HER-2/neu. However, the rate of overexpression was significantly higher in the subset of IDC combined with DCIS compared with the subset of IDC not combined with DCIS (22% v 11%, respectively; P less than .0001). These results are consistent with the hypothesis that HER-2/neu plays a more important role in initiation than in progression of ductal carcinomas. They also suggest that overexpression decreases within individual tumors as they evolve from in situ to increasingly invasive lesions or, alternatively, that many invasive carcinomas arise de novo (ie, without progressing through a significant in situ stage) by mechanisms not involving HER-2/neu. In addition, overexpression of HER-2/neu was associated with several poor prognostic features (younger patient age, premenopause, negative estrogen receptor status, negative progesterone receptor status, and high nuclear grade) in the subset of IDC combined with DCIS. With one exception (negative estrogen receptor status) these associations were lost in IDC not combined with DCIS, also suggesting that the role of HER-2/neu changes during the progression of human breast cancer.