Neoplastic transformation of epithelial cells is commonly associated with alterations in the expression of mucin genes. The mechanisms involved in this process are largely unknown. MUC6, isolated from a stomach cDNA library, is mainly expressed in stomach antral glands, as detected by using in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry. We examined MUC6 expression in normal and pathological breast tissues using immunohistochemistry with MUC6-specific antibodies and in cultured breast cancer cells using immunocytochemistry and Northern blotting. MUC6 was generally not detected in normal breast (1/11) but was detected in fibrocystic disease without atypia (7/17, 41%), in atypical fibrocystic disease (11/11, 100%) and in carcinoma (57/60, 95%). To study the mechanisms involved in mucin gene up-regulation in breast cancer, we examined baseline, growth-related and steroid-induced levels of MUC1, MUC3 and MUC6 in 4 breast cancer cell lines, 2 of which express estrogen receptors. MUC6 levels were up-regulated at post-confluence in 2/4 cell lines, whereas no changes were detected for the other mucin genes examined. MUC6 and MUC3 were constitutively expressed, and steroid-induced, in BT-474 and MCF-7 cells, respectively. As a control, pS2 was induced in both cell lines. Our results indicate that (1) MUC6 is overexpressed in breast cancer and in benign breast disease, (2) in vitro, MUC6 and MUC3 are up-regulated by steroids and (3) abnormal expression of MUC6 in breast cancers may, in part, be explained by hormonal changes associated with tumor development.