The estrogenic action of C19 steroids on breast cancer cells was measured by bioluminescence in stably transfected human breast cancer MCF-7 and T47D cell lines with a reporter gene that allows expression of the firefly luciferase enzyme under control of an estrogen regulatory element. The "estrogenic activity" of C19 steroids, such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and its sulfate (DHEAS), androst-5-en-3 beta,17 beta-diol, androst-4-en-3,17-dione, dihydrotestosterone, testosterone, and 5 alpha-androstan-3 beta,17 beta-diol was studied. This showed that DHEAS, at concentration observed in physiological conditions (10(-6) M), had a high "estrogen-like effect" in MCF-7 and T47D cell lines. Other C19 steroids, at physiological plasma concentration, alone or together did not have any significant effect on the luciferase activity. Moreover aminoglutethimide, an inhibitor of the aromatase enzyme, in the presence of C19 steroids, partially decreased the luciferase activity. These results suggest that MCF-7 and T47D cell lines could convert DHEAS to estrogen-like compounds by different enzymatic systems.