Twenty percent (n = 6) of Stage III or IV breast cancer patients (n = 30) had bone marrow metastases detected in bilateral bone marrow biopsy/aspiration preparations using standard histologic preparations. Each metastasis was also detected by four separate monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) which recognize breast carcinoma associated antigens (DF3, anti-EMA, HMFG-2, and CAM5.2). These MAbs were then utilized to stain other bone marrow preparations (n = 81) to determine their utility for the detection of micrometastatic breast carcinoma. MAbs HMFG-2, anti-EMA, and DF3 were each strongly reactive with bone marrows containing histologically-evident metastatic breast carcinoma (18/18). These anti-epithelial membrane antigen MAbs, however, were also reactive with rare plasma cells and immature cells (as well as cell clusters) in some of the control bone marrow samples tested, including those from normal patients and patients with hematologic disorders. They also reacted with some of the preparations from patients with leukemia and lymphoma, and with uninvolved marrows from patients with non-epithelial malignancies. The anti-keratin MAb CAM5.2, in contrast, reacted with 83% (15/18) breast cancer metastases and failed to stain any cells in the various categories of control marrow preparations. These data suggested that MAb CAM5.2 might be utilized to immunohistochemically differentiate micrometastatic breast carcinoma from immature myeloid or erythroid elements. Each MAb was then reacted with histologically uninvolved marrow preparations from the remaining 24 of 30 breast cancer patients in an attempt to identify occult breast carcinoma metastases. While MAbs HMFG-2, DF3, and anti-EMA demonstrated reactive cells in some of these marrows, this reactivity was similar to that seen with control preparations. MAb CAM5.2, in contrast, was negative with all specimens. These data suggest that MAb CAM5.2 may be a useful immunologic probe for the detection and confirmation of metastatic breast carcinoma in bone marrow, while more caution must be employed in the interpretation of results obtained using MAbs anti-EMA, DF3, and HMFG-2.