HIC-1 (hypermethylated in cancer) is a candidate tumor suppressor gene which is located at 17p13.3, a region which frequently undergoes allelic loss in breast and other human cancers. HIC-1 is proposed to be commonly inactivated in human cancers by hypermethylation of a normally unmethylated dense CpG island which encompasses the entire gene. To study whether HIC-1 inactivation may be important to the development of breast cancer, we first measured methylation of the HIC-1 gene in normal breast ductal tissues from microdissected frozen breast tissues and from epithelial cells purified from mammoplasty specimens. Surprisingly, in all normal breast ductal tissues we found approximately equal amounts of densely methylated HIC-1 and completely unmethylated HIC-1. This is in contrast to most normal tissues, in which all copies of HIC-1 are completely unmethylated. We then evaluated 39 primary breast cancer tissues and found virtually complete methylation of the HIC-1 gene in 26 (67%) of the cases. We also found loss of heterozygosity at the telomeric portion of chromosomal arm 17p in 22 of the 26 cases with strongly methylated HIC-1, suggesting that loss of an unmethylated HIC-1 allele may contribute to the inactivation of HIC-1 in cells with a pre-existing methylated allele. Finally, by RNase protection analysis, HIC-1 was found to be expressed in microdissected normal breast ductal tissues and unmethylated tumors but not in tumors with hypermethylation of the HIC-1 gene. These results indicate that hypermethylation of HIC-1 and associated loss of HIC-1 expression is common in primary breast cancer. Furthermore, the HIC-1 gene is densely methylated in approximately one-half of the alleles in normal breast epithelium, which may predispose this tissue to inactivation of this gene by loss of heterozygosity.