The possible mechanisms of the inhibitory effect of Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on the estrogen-induced growth of MCF-7 human breast cancer cells were explored. The impairment of metabolic pathways, via the inhibition of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) activity, was excluded: G6PD activity in MCF-7 homogenate was reduced by DHEA only at a very high concentration (50 microM), while no inhibitory action on the enzyme activity was detected when DHEA was added at the antimitotic concentrations (0.02-0.5 microM). A steroid receptor mediated effect was explored: DHEA might either activate androgen receptors (AR) or partially displace E2 from estrogen receptor (ER). The pure antiandrogens Flutamide and Hydroxyflutamide reversed the inhibitory effect of DHEA on MCF-7 cell growth, whereas both the nonsteroidal estrogen Diethylstilbestrol and the antiestrogen Tamoxifen were ineffective. Results demonstrate that the AR activation plays a pivotal role in the inhibitory action of DHEA on the E2-induced MCF-7 growth.