Previous studies on the cell-cell adhesion molecules P- and E-cadherin have shown that P-cadherin is not expressed in breast cancer. In contrast, the expression of E-cadherin is a normal event in these tumors, but a reduction in the levels of this molecule in neoplastic cells is associated with the histological type, high histological grade, greater tumor size, and metastasis. The expression pattern of P- and E-cadherin were immunohistochemically studied in tissue sections from normal breast tissue, benign breast lesions, and 57 infiltrating breast carcinomas. Cadherin expression was analyzed in parallel with pathological features and the immunohistochemical expression of estrogen and progesterone receptors in breast carcinomas. P-cadherin was detected in the myoepithelial cells and E-cadherin in luminal epithelial cells from normal breast and benign breast lesions. P-cadherin expression was detected in 9 of 45 cases (20%) of infiltrating ductal carcinomas of no special type; none of the special histological types that were analyzed (7 infiltrating lobular carcinomas, 3 colloid carcinomas, and 2 infiltrating papillary carcinomas) expressed P-cadherin. In infiltrating ductal carcinomas, P-cadherin expression correlated significantly with a reduction in E-cadherin expression, histological grade (all cases were grade III tumors), and hormone receptor content (8 of 9 cases were estrogen and progesterone receptor negative). Although E-cadherin was not found in the 7 infiltrating lobular carcinomas, it was present in the remaining histological types and was preserved in 15 infiltrating ductal and 3 colloid and 2 papillary carcinomas and was reduced in 30 infiltrating ductal carcinomas. In addition, a reduction in E-cadherin expression was significantly associated with high histological grade and a lack of steroid hormone receptors in infiltrating ductal carcinomas. No apparent relationship was found between P- and E-cadherin expression and tumor size and axillary lymph node metastasis. The distinct patterns of P- and E-cadherin expression observed in this study strongly suggest a differential role for these cadherins in human breast carcinogenesis.