We studied the interaction between dopamine and estradiol on PRL release by cultured normal and tumorous PRL-secreting cells prepared from human pituitaries. If pituitary glands were obtained within 3 h after sudden death of previously normal individuals, the viability of isolated pituitary cells prepared by dispersion with dispase was more than 75%. After 4 days of culture, dopamine (500 nM) inhibited PRL release by cells prepared from four normal pituitaries by 24 +/- 3% (+/- SEM). Pretreatment of the cells with 100 nM estradiol did not alter dopamine-mediated inhibition of PRL release. Estradiol alone increased basal PRL release and cell PRL content. Cultured PRL-secreting pituitary tumor cells, obtained by transsphenoidal operation from four patients, were similarly sensitive to dopamine. Estradiol stimulated tumor cell PRL release and content, but significantly diminished the inhibitory effect of dopamine. The estrogen receptor blocker tamoxifen did not alter PRL release, but it did reverse the estradiol-induced insensitivity of the prolactinoma cells to the dopamine agonist bromocriptine. In conclusion, these in vitro results indicate that estrogens do not antagonize the effect of dopamine on normal human PRL-secreting pituitary cells. In human pituitary tumor cells, however, estradiol decreased the sensitivity of PRL release to dopamine (agonists), and the estrogen action can be acutely reversed by tamoxifen.