Retinoic acid (RA) strongly inhibits proliferation of the estrogen (E2)-dependent human breast cancer cell lines MCF7, T47D, and ZR75-1, but not the E2-independent and E2 receptor (ER)-negative lines MDA-MB231, MDA-MB468, BT20 and Hs578T. The specific sensitivity of the E2-dependent cell lines seems not to be caused by an inhibitory effect of RA on ER functioning since RA inhibited the proliferative response not only to E2 but also to insulin. Furthermore, endogenous RA receptors (RARs) hardly impaired transcriptional activation of an E2 responsive element-tk-CAT reporter construct. RAR alpha mRNA was highly expressed in the RA-responsive lines, but not in the unresponsive lines, except BT20. With the exception of Hs578T, also RAR beta mRNA expression was low in the unresponsive lines. While in the dependent lines and Hs578T RA activated RA responsive element-dependent transcriptional activity, this response was very low in MDA-MB231, MDA-MB468, and BT20, suggesting that the RA resistance of these latter three ER-negative lines is due to underexpression of functional RARs. Our results suggest that the loss of functional RARs may be a frequent event, leading to RA unresponsiveness of ER-negative breast cancer cells. This implies that both the steroid and retinoid receptor status of breast tumors may be used to predict a successful treatment with retinoids.