The insulin receptor (IR), a ligand-activated tyrosine kinase, is present in breast cancers, but its relationship to patient survival is unknown. The IR was measured in 584 tumor specimens from patients with node-negative breast carcinoma by frozen-section immunohistochemistry and light microscopy. The immunostaining signal was quantitated in relation to both the staining intensity and the proportion of positive malignant epithelial cells. Analyses indicated that patients with tumors with undetectable IR content in malignant epithelial cells (260 cases) had a relatively lower predicted 5-year disease-free survival (DFS) (69% +/- 3%) than did patients with tumors with detectable IR content (324 cases; DFS 76% +/- 3%, p = .032). The significance of IR content in these breast malignant epithelial cells was then analyzed along with patient age, tumor size, progesterone and estrogen receptor status, p53 accumulation, and S-phase. Multivariate analysis of these data revealed that after adjustment for these other variables, IR content was the strongest independent predictive factor for DFS (relative risk = 1.73, p = .005). Interestingly, in a small subset of patients with very high IR content (n = 62), DFS was decreased. These data indicate that IR content in node-negative breast cancers is a significant major predictor of reduced DFS. Moreover, they raise the possibility that the measurement of IR content might provide important information concerning breast cancer biology.