The growth of breast cancer cells is under the regulation of hormones, growth factors, and their receptors. In the present study, we have employed a new, sensitive, and specific radioimmunoassay for the direct measurement of insulin receptors in surgical specimens of breast cancers. In 159 specimens the insulin receptor content was 6.15 +/- 3.69 ng/0.1 mg protein. This value was more than sixfold higher than the mean value found in both 27 normal breast tissues obtained at total mastectomy (0.95 + 0.68, P less than 0.001) and in six normal specimens obtained from reduction mammoplasty (0.84 +/- 0.78, P less than 0.001). The insulin receptor content in breast cancer tissues was also higher than in any normal tissue investigated including liver (Pezzino, V., V. Papa, V. Trischitta, A. Brunetti, P.A. Goodman, M.K. Treutelaar, J.A. Williams, B.A. Maddux, R. Vigneri, and I.D. Goldfine, 1989. Am. J. Physiol. 257:E451-457). The insulin receptor in breast cancer retained its ability to both bind insulin and undergo insulin-induced tyrosine kinase activation. Immunostaining of the specimens revealed that the insulin receptor was present in malignant epithelial cells, but was not detected in stromal and inflammatory cells. Univariant analysis revealed that the insulin receptor content of the tumors correlated positively with tumor size (P = 0.014), histological grading (P = 0.030), and the estrogen receptor content (P = 0.035). There were no significant correlations between insulin receptor content and the age, body weight, menopausal status, and nodal involvement of the patients. These studies indicate, therefore, that the insulin receptor content is increased in breast cancers and raise the possibility that the insulin receptor may have a role in the biology of these tumors.