Estrogens have an important role in the growth of breast and other hormone-sensitive cancers. We have shown that 4-hydroxyandrostenedione (4-OHA) selectively blocks estrogen synthesis by inhibiting aromatase activity in ovarian and peripheral tissues and reduces plasma estrogen levels in rat and non-human primate species. In postmenopausal men and women, estrogens are mainly of peripheral origin. When postmenopausal breast cancer patients were administered either by daily oral or parenteral weekly treatment with 4-OHA, plasma estrogen concentrations were significantly reduced. Complete or partial response to treatment occurred in 34% of 100 patients with advanced breast cancer, while the disease was stabilized in 12%. We recently studied the effects of 4-OHA and other aromatase inhibitors, 10-propargylestr-4-ene-3,17-dione (PED) and imidazo[1,5-alpha]3,4,5,6-tetrahydropyrin-6-yl-(4-benzonitrile) (CGS 16949A) as well as 5 alpha-reductase inhibitors, N,N-diethyl-4-methyl-3-oxo-4-aza-5 alpha-androstane-17 beta-carboxyamide (4-MA) and 17 beta-hydroxy-4-aza-4-methyl-19norandrost-5-en-3-one (L651190) in prostatic tissue from 11 patients with prostatic cancer and six patients with benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), and from normal men at autopsy. We attempted to measure aromatase activity in tissue incubation by quantitating 3H2O released during aromatization of androstenedione or testosterone labeled at the C-1 position. The amount of 3H2O released from all samples was at least twice that of the heat inactivated tissue samples. The 3H2O release was significantly inhibited by 4-OHA and 4-MA, but not by the other aromatase inhibitors. However, when HPLC and TLC were used to isolate steroid products, no estrone or estradiol was detected in the incubates. Furthermore, no aromatase mRNA was detected following amplification by PCR. The 4-OHA was found to inhibit 5 alpha-reductase in both BPH and cancer tissue, although to a lesser extent than 4-MA. The other aromatase inhibitors were without effect. Although a mechanism involving intraprostatic aromatase is not likely, inhibitors may act to reduce peripherally-formed estrogens. In postmenopausal breast cancer, the results indicate that 4-OHA is of significant benefit.