The ultrastructural distribution of thrombospondin (TSP) and its cell surface receptor, integrin alpha V, was studied in two cases of human breast carcinoma: one of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) with an invasive component, and one of invasive lobular carcinoma. In DCIS, moderate immunolabelling for TSP and integrin alpha V was observed in the rough endoplasmic reticulum and at the plasma membrane of intraductal carcinoma cells. TSP was also associated with extracellular matrix collagen fibrils surrounding in situ carcinoma cells. In the invasive part of this ductal carcinoma, most of the malignant cells were negative for TSP, while integrin alpha V was moderately expressed in these cells. In sharp contrast, typical strands of invasive lobular carcinoma cells in "Indian file" showed moderate TSP immunostaining in the rough endoplasmic reticulum and strong immunoreactivity for TSP at the plasma membrane and in the extracellular matrix. Moderate to strong immunoreactivity for integrin alpha V was also observed in invasive lobular carcinoma cells. Because of the role of TSP during cancer cell invasion, the different expression patterns of TSP in invasive ductal versus lobular carcinoma may well reflect biological differences between these two types of breast carcinoma and could account for the peculiar diffuse invasive behaviour of breast lobular carcinoma cells.