Some epithelial cancers can be induced to revert to quiescent differentiated tissue when combined with embryonic mesenchyme; however, the mechanism of this induction is unknown. Here we combine tissue engineering, developmental biology, biochemistry and proteomics approaches to attack this problem. Using a synthetic reconstitution system, we show that co-culture of breast cancer cells with embryonic mesenchyme from early stage (E12.5-13.5) mammary glands decreases tumor cell proliferation while stimulating acinus differentiation, whereas cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) fail to produce these normalizing effects. When insoluble extracellular matrices (ECMs) were isolated from cultured early stage (E12.5-13.5) embryonic mammary mesenchyme cells or E10 tooth mesenchyme and recombined with mammary tumor cells, they were found to be sufficient to induce breast cancer normalization including enhanced expression of estrogen receptor-α (ER-α). In contrast, ECM from later stage (E14.5) mammary mesenchyme and conditioned medium isolated from mesenchymal cell cultures were ineffective. Importantly, when the inductive ECMs produced by early stage embryonic mammary mesenchyme were scraped from dishes and injected into fast-growing breast tumors in mice, they significantly inhibited cancer expansion. Proteomics analysis of the detergent insoluble ECM material revealed several matrix components that were preferentially expressed in the embryonic ECMs. Analysis of two of these molecules previously implicated in cancer regulation--biglycan and tenascin C--revealed that addition of biglyan can mimic the tumor normalization response, and that siRNA knockdown of its expression in cultured embryonic mesenchyme results in loss of the ECM's inductive activity. These studies confirm that embryonic mesenchyme retains the ability to induce partial breast cancer reversion, and that its inductive capability resides at least in part in the ECM protein biglycan that it produces.