Aromatase inhibitors are proving to be more effective than tamoxifen for postmenopausal patients with breast cancer. Estrogen concentrations in the breast are similar in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women, and several fold higher than circulating levels in postmenopausal women. In order to investigate the importance of intratumoral aromatase in stimulating the proliferation of the tumor, we used immunocytochemistry to determine the extent of aromatase expression in relationship to the response of the patient to aromatase inhibitor treatment. The relationship between positive staining for aromatase in the primary tumor and response to treatment with an aromatase inhibitor was investigated in a retrospective study of 102 patients with advanced breast cancer. Immunohistochemical staining using a monoclonal antibody against aromatase was performed on paraffin embedded tumor tissue. Response was evaluated using UICC criteria. Nine out of 13 patients with objective response to treatment stained positive and 49 of 89 patients with stable or progressive disease stained positive. No significant relationship between positive staining and objective response to treatment could be found. When patients with 'clinical benefit' (i.e. objective response plus prolonged stable disease of at least 6 months) were considered, also no relationship could be found. Further analysis of subgroups with positive hormone receptors, treatment with newer generation aromatase inhibitors, single metastatic site, non-visceral metastases and previous treatment only with tamoxifen did not show any relationship. Tumor aromatase expression did not correlate with response of patients with advanced breast cancer to aromatase inhibitor treatment. Most patients had relapsed from other treatments before receiving an aromatase inhibitor. It seems likely that many of these patients had tumors that may have progressed to hormone independence at this stage of the disease. Research in patients who have received treatment with aromatase inhibitors in earlier stages of disease (first line and adjuvant treatment) may provide further information on the relationship between tumor aromatase, steroid receptors and response to inhibitor treatment.