The neuroendocrine hormone prolactin is a growth factor required for the proliferation and terminal differentiation of the human breast. These effects are mediated by the prolactin receptor, a member of the growth factor receptor family. Three prolactin receptor isoforms (long, intermediate, and short) have been identified in the rat, which differ in the length of their intracytoplasmic domains. In humans, however, only the long prolactin receptor isoform had been identified previously. The expression of the human intermediate prolactin receptor is demonstrated and preliminary evidence for a human short isoform is presented. Heterogeneous expression of prolactin receptor, at the immunoblot and immunohistochemical levels was observed in breast carcinoma specimens. A statistically significant correlation between prolactin receptor and estrogen receptor expression was noted. An autocrine/paracrine role for prolactin within breast tissues was further examined by performing reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction on RNA isolated from cell lines and clinical specimens with prolactin-specific primers. A 585-bp product was observed and found to be identical to human prolactin. The synthesis of prolactin by breast epithelium was confirmed by in situ hybridization analysis of breast tissues and the detection of bio- and immunoreactive prolactin in breast cancer lines. These analyses indicate that the principal site for prolactin expression within the normal or malignant breast residues within the epithelium. These data indicate that prolactin may participate in an autocrine/paracrine stimulatory loop within breast tissues and suggest a role for this growth factor in the pathogenesis of breast cancer.