The epithelial-specific cell-cell adhesion molecule E-cadherin was analyzed immunohistochemically on tissue sections of 89 human primary infiltrating breast carcinomas, using monoclonal antibodies 6F9 (for cryostat sections) and 5H9 (for cryostat and paraffin sections). The tumors included 41 well and moderately differentiated infiltrating ductal carcinomas (IDCs) most of which (78%) showed strong linear staining at the cell borders at a level, as high as luminal cells of normal mammary glands. The 26 poorly differentiated, more highly malignant IDCs examined also were all positive for E-cadherin, although a higher proportion of them (54%) showed reduced staining, which was heterogeneous and dotted over the cell borders. In contrast, 19 of 22 infiltrating lobular carcinomas (ILCs), which were either of the dispersed (classical), solid, or the mixed type, did not express E-cadherin, whereas three cases showed weak staining. In situ lesions of ILCs and pure lobular carcinoma in situ (four cases) were all E-cadherin negative, whereas intraductal carcinomas (11 cases) exhibited mostly strong staining. The results were confirmed by Western blotting. The data indicate that loss of E-cadherin expression is an early event in the formation of the lobular type of breast carcinomas. The absence of E-cadherin signifies a partial loss of epithelial differentiation and may account for the extended spread of lobular carcinoma in situ and the peculiar diffuse invasion mode of ILC. The generation of dedifferentiated IDCs can only in part be correlated with reduced expression of the intercellular adhesion molecule E-cadherin. Other factors are obviously also involved during invasion of this carcinoma type.