Experimental laboratory data suggest that tumour growth is a balance between apoptosis and proliferation and that suppression of drug-induced apoptosis by oncogenes such as bcl-2 may be an important cause of intrinsic chemoresistance. The aims of this study were to assess the in vivo relationship of apoptosis to proliferation and Bcl-2 protein in human breast tumours both prior to chemotherapy and in the residual resistant cell population at the completion of treatment. We examined apoptotic index (AI), Ki67 and Bcl-2 protein expression in the tissue of 40 patients with operable breast cancer immediately before ECF preoperative chemotherapy, and in 20 of these patients with residual tumour, at the completion of treatment. There was a significant positive association between AI and Ki67 both before and after chemotherapy, and in their percentage change with treatment. In the residual specimens AI and Ki67 were significantly reduced compared with pre-treatment biopsies, while Bcl-2 expression showed a significant increase. No differences were seen in the pre-treatment levels of any of the variables measured between patients obtaining pathological complete response and those who did not, although numbers were small. These data suggest that apoptosis and proliferation are closely related in vivo. It is possible that the phenotype of reduced apoptosis and proliferation, and increased Bcl-2 may be associated with breast cancer cells resistant to cytotoxic chemotherapy, although this can only be proven by assessing larger numbers of patients in relation to pathological response.