We have previously shown that neu oncogene-initiated rat mammary carcinomas uniquely over-express neu-related lipocalin (NRL), a member of the calycin protein superfamily. Here, we characterize the putative human homolog of NRL, neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin (NGAL). ngal gene expression was found at moderate levels in only 2 of 17 human tissues examined, breast and lung. When breast cancers were examined for NGAL mRNA and protein levels, they were found to exhibit heterogeneous expression. NGAL levels varied in these tumors from undetectable to exceeding those in normal breast parenchyma. Immuno-histochemical analysis confirmed the presence of NGAL within breast carcinoma cells but detected only low levels of this protein in normal ductal epithelium. In contrast, large amounts of the protein were localized to the lumen of normal breast ducts in the vicinity of NGAL-expressing tumors. Interestingly, unlike NRL in rat mammary carcinomas, no significant association between NGAL expression and HER-2/neu activation was found in human breast tumors. In contrast, a significant correlation between NGAL expression in breast cancer was found with several other markers of poor prognosis, including estrogen and progesterone receptor-negative status and high proliferation (S-phase fraction). NGAL levels were stratified as high or low in breast cancers from a cohort of node-positive patients with known outcome. No significant association between NGAL expression and disease-free or overall survival was observed.