In contrast to cancer cell lines, normal human breast epithelial cells are infrequently studied. Such cells, now routinely cultured in our laboratory from tissue obtained at the time of reduction mammoplasty, were used to study the actions of estradiol (E2), the progestin promegestone (R5020), and the antiprogesterone RU486 on cell growth and progesterone-dependent 17 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (E2DH) activity, which is considered good marker of epithelial differentiation as well as progesterone dependency. The studies were carried out using secondary cultures to assure equal initial cell distribution. Cell growth was estimated daily by a histometric method providing a growth index and DNA assay. E2 stimulation of cell growth was not found when the cells were grown in our usual culture medium, but E2 dose-dependent growth stimulation occurred in medium minimally supplemented with serum (1%), insulin; and epidermal growth factor. R5020 inhibited cell growth and stimulated E2DH activity in a dose-dependent manner. RU486 behaved as a pure but low potent progestin agonist concerning E2DH stimulation, but as an agonist with partial antagonist properties concerning cell growth inhibition. In conclusion, E2 stimulated proliferation of human breast epithelial cells in culture, whereas the progestin R5020 inhibited cell multiplication and favored differentiation. The antiprogesterone RU486 had a biphasic effect acting both as progestin agonist and partial antagonist.