The effects of 17 beta-estradiol (estradiol), synthetic progestin R5020 and their antagonists, tamoxifen (Tam) and synthetic RU38486 on lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) activity in MCF-7 human breast cancer cells during the growth period were studied. A specially developed quantitative cytochemical assay was used; LDH activity is expressed per cell, and is thus independent of the positive and negative growth effects of the hormones and antagonists. Estradiol and R5020 stimulated LDH activity after similar exposures (6-48 h) and the stimuli were concentration dependent over the range 10(-7) M to 10(-10) M. As for the antagonists, RU38486 stimulated LDH activity in much the same way as estradiol and R5020; Tam alone, on the other hand, does not stimulate LDH, but when added to estradiol, Tam inhibits estradiol mediated LDH activation. When present at half-stimulant concentration, estradiol + R5020 and estradiol + RU38486 exhibit additive effects on LDH activity. Thus LDH appears to be an interesting tool for the study of hormone and antagonist effects in MCF-7 breast cancer cells.