About 50% of patients with breast cancer have no involvement of axillary lymph nodes at diagnosis and can be considered cured after primary locoregional treatment. However, about 20-30% will experience distant relapse. The group of patients at risk is not well characterised: recurrence is probably due to the establishment of micrometastases before treatment. Given the early steps of metastasis in which tumour cells interact with endothelial cells of blood vessels, and, given the independent prognostic value in breast cancer of both the quantification of tumour vascularisation and the detection of micrometastases in the bone marrow, the aim of this study was to determine the relationship between vascularisation, measured by Chalkley morphometry, and the bone marrow content of cytokeratin-19 (CK-19) mRNA, quantified by real-time reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, in a series of 68 patients with localised untreated breast cancer. The blood concentration of factors involved in angiogenesis (interleukin-6 and vascular endothelial growth factor) and of factors involved in coagulation (D-dimer, fibrinogen, platelets) was also measured. When bone marrow CK-19 relative gene expression (RGE) was categorised according to the cut-off value of 0.77 (95th centile of control patients), 53% of the patients had an elevated CK-19 RGE. Patients with bone marrow micrometastases, on the basis of an elevated CK-19 RGE, had a mean Chalkley count of 7.5 +/- 1.7 (median 7, standard error [SE] 0.30) compared with a mean Chalkley count of 6.5 +/- 1.7 in other patients (median 6, SE 0.3) (Mann-Whitney U-test; P = 0.04). Multiple regression analysis revealed that Chalkley count, not lymph node status, independently predicted CK-19 RGE status (P = 0.04; odds ratio 1.38; 95% confidence interval 1.009-1.882). Blood parameters reflecting angiogenesis and coagulation were positively correlated with Chalkley count and/or CK-19 RGE. Our data are in support of an association between elevated relative microvessel area of the primary tumour and the presence of bone marrow micrometastases in breast cancer patients with operable disease, and corroborate the paracrine and endocrine role of interleukin-6 and the involvement of coagulation in breast cancer growth and metastasis.