Obesity is a risk factor for postmenopausal breast cancer and is associated with poor prognosis. Leptin, a cytokine synthesized in adipose tissue, has been implicated as a link between obesity and breast cancer. In the present study, the effects of leptin on cell proliferation and proteins associated with leptin signaling and/or breast cell growth were investigated in ER-positive, MCF-7, T47-D and MDA-MB-361, and ER-negative, MDA-MB-231 and SK-BR-3, breast cancer cell lines. MDA-MB-361 and SK-BR-3 also overexpress HER2/neu. For proliferation assays, 96-well plates were used and for protein determinations cells were synchronized in 6-well plates for 18-24 h in serum-free medium. Leptin was added at 0, 5, 10, 25, 50 and 100 ng/ml for 24 and 48 h. For Western blot analyses, protein extracts were probed for Ob-Rb, Ob-R, leptin, Jak2, PI3K, Stat3, p-Stat3, PCNA, cyclin D1, Cox-2, VEGF, Bcl-2, Bcl-xL, Bax, insulin, IGF-I, IGFBP3, IGF-IRalpha, aromatase, CYP1A1 and CYP1B1. Overall, except for MCF-7 cells, leptin stimulated proliferation in all lines. MCF-7 cells expressed higher levels of Ob-Rb, Jak2, PI3K, Stat3 and p-Stat3 in a dose-dependent manner to 50 ng/ml at 24 h; and IGF-IRalpha increased at 24 h. Cyclin D1 and Cox-2 levels increased with leptin treatment. Higher CYP1B1 expression was observed at both 24 and 48 h. In MDA-MB-231 cells, p-Stat3 and Bcl-xL were increased at 48 h; whereas PCNA and cyclin D1 expression increased in leptin-treated cells at 24 and 48 h. In T47-D cells, Jak2 and Stat3 were elevated at higher leptin concentrations at 24 and 48 h. However, p-Stat3 and PCNA demonstrated an increase only in 48-h leptin-treated cells. Furthermore, cyclin D1 exhibited higher expression at both 24 and 48 h, while Bcl-xL expression was lower with increasing concentrations of leptin at 48 h. In MDA-MB-361 cells, Ob-Rb and VEGF increased at 24 and 48 h; whereas PI3K, Stat3, PCNA and insulin levels increased in leptin-treated MDA-MB-361 cells after 48 h. Bcl-2 and IGF-IRalpha were decreased at 24 h and a dose-dependent increase at 48 h was noted. Higher expression of CYP1B1 was observed with leptin for 24 h. In SK-BR-3 cells, Ob-R increased at both 24 and 48 h. A similar trend was found for IGF-I and IGFBP3 expression. Higher levels of Jak2 and PI3K were observed after 24 h. Interestingly, there was a gradual increase of leptin expression at 24 h, but a gradual decrease at 48 h in relation to the dose of leptin. In contrast, PCNA and IGF-IRalpha showed a decline at 24 h and an increase at 48 h. Elevated levels of cyclin D1, VEGF and Bax were detected at 48 h in cells and increased Cox-2 expression was observed at 24 h. These data indicate that leptin may influence breast cancer development in relation to ER status as well as to the presence or absence of HER2. Continued study on leptin may be helpful for a better understanding of breast cancer development in obese women.