The prominent 'desmoplastic' or stromal reaction seen in many invasive breast carcinomas lead to early speculation that stromal cells play a role in breast cancer pathogenesis. Experimental evidence now supports this hypothesis and interactions between stromal cells and epithelial cells appear to be important for both normal mammary development and neoplasia. The identification of genes that are selectively expressed in the stroma of malignant breast lesions has recently provided new insights into the molecular basis of stromal-epithelial interactions. Stromally expressed genes include growth factors, proteases and extracellular matrix proteins, all biological activities with potential roles in malignant progression. Investigations discussed here concern the nature of the paracrine signals provided by malignant epithelial cells that activate changes in stromal gene expression, the effect that the stromally derived factors have on the behavior of malignant epithelial cells and the identification of novel factors and receptors in either stroma or epithelia that contribute to their mutual interactions. These questions will be addressed in the context of this laboratory's studies on insulin-like growth factors, as these molecules show marked differences in stromal expression between benign and malignant breast tissue and thus provide a useful paradigm for investigations into the paracrine environment of an evolving breast tumor.