The expression of aromatase by breast cancer cells and the role of locally produced estrogen in the stimulation of tumor growth has been controversial. The present study was performed to determine the site of aromatization in human breast cancers, using both immunocytochemistry and in situ hybridization. The functional significance of locally produced estrogens on growth of the tumor was addressed by measuring aromatase activity and a marker of proliferation (PCNA score). In addition, histocultures of some tumors were carried out to investigate whether testosterone aromatization could stimulate tumor proliferation. Of the 19 tumors investigated, 10 (52.6%) showed significant immunoreactivity to antiaromatase antibody in the cytoplasm of tumor epithelial cells and in surrounding stromal cells. The presence of aromatase mRNA detected by ISH was also located in tumor epithelial cells and stromal cell, and the pattern of expression was the same as with immunocytochemistry. In the ten tumors that showed immunoreaction to aromatase, the average aromatase activity measured in cryosections was 286.5 +/- 18.6 (SE) fmol estrogen/mg protein.h, whereas in nine tumors with weak aromatase immunoreaction, the enzyme activity was 154.7 +/- 19.3 (SE) fmol estrogen/mg protein-h (P < 0.05). The mean PCNA score was 33.8 +/- 5.1 (SE)% in strongly stained tumors and 20.8 +/- 2.0 (SE)% in weakly stained tumors (P < 0.05). Aromatase activity level and PCNA score were significantly correlated. In histoculture of four tumors, estradiol increased the incorporation of [3H]-thymidine into DNA. In two of these tumors, aromatase activity was high and [3H]-thymidine incorporation into DNA was also stimulated by testosterone. In the other two tumors that had low aromatase activity, no such stimulation occurred with testosterone. The results indicate that aromatase is expressed mainly in tumor epithelial cells and that sufficient amounts of estrogen are synthesized by the tumor to produce a proliferative response. It is concluded that estrogen synthesis by cancer cells could play a important role in promoting growth in a significant proportion of breast tumors.