We performed quantitative determination of the distribution of hyaluronan (hyaluronic acid, HA) and the HA-binding protein, hyaluronectin (HN), 2 components of the extracellular matrix of tumor desmoplasia, within 71 human breast carcinomas. Results showed that HA and HN were more elevated in tumoral than in non-tumoral adjacent tissue, and that the peripheral invasive area of tumors contained increased levels of HA and HN as compared with the central non-invasive area (p less than 10(-3) and p less than 10(-5) respectively). HN and HA levels of 61 ductal carcinomas were related to the histological grade of tumors; no significant difference was found between grades for HA; HN was found to be significantly lower in grade III than in grade II tumors (p less than 0.01). HA and HN rates were correlated in grade I and grade II tumors and were not correlated in grade III. Mean percentage of HA saturation level by HN for whole tumors was found to be less than 4%, indicating that HA is essentially free of proteins and could be used as a target for cancer diagnosis or therapy.