Estrogen receptor activation in hormone dependent cells (MCF-7 and T47D) and hormone independent cells (MDA-MB-231) was measured by bioluminescence in stably transfected human breast cancer MCF-7, T47D and MDA-MB-231 cell lines with a reporter gene which allows expression of the firefly luciferase enzyme under the control of an estrogen regulatory element. Estrogen receptor activation by estrogens and steroid sulfates such as estrone 3-sulfate (E1S), estradiol 3-sulfate (E2S), estriol 3-sulfate (E3S) and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) were studied and compared in these cell lines. DHEAS, at a physiological plasma concentration only (1 microM), had a high "estrogen-like" effect in MCF-7 and T47D cells. In contrast, estrogen sulfates did not have any effect on the luciferase activity at their physiological plasma concentration. These results suggest that MCF-7 and T47D cells could convert DHEAS to estrogens by aromatase and/or to estrogen-like compounds by other enzymatic systems. This is the first demonstrahon of the steroid sulfates action through their metabolites on the estrogen receptor. Therefore, at the concentrations observed in physiological conditions, DHEAS could contribute to the pool of compounds having estrogenic activities in human breast cancer hormone dependent cell lines.