The expression of several apoptosis-regulating genes was evaluated in 9 human breast cancer cell lines, 2 immortalized human mammary epithelial lines, 1 normal breast tissue biopsy, and 3 primary breast tumors, using a multiple antigen detection (MAD) immunoblotting method. The anti-apoptotic proteins Bcl-2, Bcl-X(L), Mcl-1, and BAG-1 were present at immunodetectable levels in 7, 10, 10, and 9 of the 11 lines. Comparing these 11 cell lines among themselves revealed that steady-state levels of Bcl-2, Bcl-X(L), Mcl-1, and BAG-1 were present at relatively higher levels in 4, 6, 5, and 5 of the lines, respectively. In contrast, the pro-apoptotic proteins Bax and Bak were detected in all 11 cell lines, and were present at relatively higher levels in 10 and 5 of the 11 lines, respectively. The Interleukin-1beta converting enzyme (ICE) homolog CPP32 (Caspase-3) was expressed in 10/11 breast cell lines. High levels of p53 protein, indicative of mutant p53, were found in 8 of the 11 lines and correlated inversely with Bax expression (p = 0.01). Bcl-2 and BAG-1 protein levels were positively correlated (p = 0.03). Immunoblot analysis of primary adenocarcinomas revealed expression of the anti-apoptotic proteins Bcl-2, Bcl-X(L), Mcl-1, and BAG-1, as well as the pro-apoptotic proteins Bax, Bak, and CPP32, in at least 2 of the 3 tumors examined. Immunohistochemical analysis was also performed for all of these proteins using 20 paraffin-embedded breast cancer biopsy specimens that all contained residual normal mammary epithelium in combination with both invasive cancer and carcinoma in situ. All of these apoptosis-regulating proteins were detected in primary breast cancers, though the percentage of immunopositive tumor cells varied widely in some cases. Comparisons of the intensity of immunostaining in normal mammary epithelium and invasive carcinoma suggested that Bcl-2 immunointensity tends to be lower in cancers than normal breast epithelium (p = 0.03), whereas CPP32 immunointensity was generally higher in invasive cancers (p < 0.0001). Taken together, the results demonstrate expression of multiple apoptosis-modulating proteins in breast cancer cell lines and primary tumors, suggesting complexity in the regulation of apoptosis in these neoplasms of mammary epithelial origin.