Hemidesmosomes are multiprotein structures that attach basal cells of stratified epithelia to basement membranes. Although normal human breast epithelia are not stratified, we observed expression of electron-dense hemidesmosomes and hemidesmosome protein components by breast epithelial and myoepithelial cells at the basal lamina in vivo. Primary cultured normal human breast epithelial cells also contained hemidesmosomes and component proteins, and could be used as a model for hemidesmosome assembly and regulation. In these cultured cells, hemidesmosome proteins were expressed and localized basally in an unvaried temporal pattern, and electron-dense hemidesmosomes were not seen until the final protein was localized to the cell base. In addition, rate of localization was influenced by confluence, doubling time, and extracellular matrix. Invasive breast cancer cells did not express hemidesmosomes or most of the component proteins in vivo. In carcinoma in situ, cells away from the basement membrane lacked hemidesmosomes and hemidesmosome proteins, and cells at the basement membrane exhibited abnormalities of hemidesmosome protein expression. Primary human malignant breast cells in culture exhibited a mix of hemidesmosome phenotypes. These data suggest that hemidesmosomes may be important subcellular structures in determining the cytoarchitecture of the breast epithelium. Further, their downregulation may influence cytoarchitecture remodeling closely linked with cell cycle, motility, and extracellular matrix interactions; and their loss in carcinoma may be associated with loss of normal cytoarchitecture.