There is great concern over the long-term influence of oral contraceptives on the development of breast cancer in women. Oestrogens are known to stimulate the growth of human breast cancer cells, and this laboratory has previously reported (Jeng & Jordan, 1991) that the 19-norprogestin norethindrone could stimulate the proliferation of MCF-7 human breast cancer cells. We studied the influence of the 19-norprogestins norgestrel and gestodene compared to a 'non' 19-norprogestin medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) on MCF-7 cell proliferation. The 19-norprogestins stimulated proliferation at a concentration of 10(-8) M, while MPA could not stimulate proliferation at concentrations as great as 3 x 10(-6) M. The stimulatory activity of the 19-norprogestins could be blocked by the antioestrogen ICI 164,384, but not by the antiprogestin RU486. Transfection studies with the reporter plasmids containing an oestrogen response element or progesterone response element (vitERE-CAT, pS2ERE-CAT, and PRE15-CAT) were performed to determine the intracellular action of norgestrel and gestodene. The 19-norprogestins stimulated the vitERE-CAT activity maximally at 10(-6) M, and this stimulation was inhibited by the addition of ICI 164,384. MPA did not stimulate vitERE-CAT activity. A single base pair alteration in the palindromic sequence of vitERE (resulting in the pS2ERE) led to a dramatic decrease in CAT expression by the 19-norprogestins, suggesting that the progestin activity required specific response element base sequencing. PRE15-CAT activity was stimulated by norgestrel, gestodene and MPA at concentrations well below growth stimulatory activity. This stimulation could be blocked by RU486. These studies suggest that the 19-norprogestins norgestrel and gestodene stimulate MCF-7 breast cancer cell growth by activating the oestrogen receptor.