Bcl-2 has been demonstrated to inhibit apoptosis in breast cancer cells in vitro, and the ratio between Bcl-2 and its proapoptotic homologue Bax seems to be an important determinant of cellular sensitivity to induction of apoptosis. However, little information is available on the relationship between Bcl-2 and the rate of apoptotic and necrotic cell death in breast tumours. From a series of 441 premenopausal, lymphnode-negative breast cancer patients, a subset of 49 tumours was selected in which immunostaining for the 26-kDa isoform of Bcl-2 was either absent (n = 23) or very high (n = 26). High expression of Bcl-2 was found to be strongly associated with low rates of apoptotic (P < 0.001) and necrotic cell death (P < 0.001). The mean value of the apoptotic index was 2.69%+/-1.40% in Bcl-2-negative tumours and 0.68%+/-1.00% in Bcl-2-positive tumours. Expression of the proapoptotic protein Bax correlated neither with Bcl-2 nor with the frequency of apoptotic cells. Immunostaining for the antiapoptotic Bcl-2 homologue BcI-X(L) correlated with Bcl-2 expression (P < 0.001) but not with apoptosis. High proliferation rate and high tumour grade (Bloom-Richardson) were strongly associated with absence of Bcl-2 expression (P< 0.001). p53 accumulation was associated with absence of Bcl-2 expression and increased apoptotic activity. Loss of Bcl-2 expression was strongly correlated with increased apoptotic and necrotic cell death, high proliferation rate and high tumour grade, supporting a model in which Bcl-2 not only mediates cell death, but also cell division in breast cancer tissue, and in which regulation of cell division and cell death are tightly linked.