Sex steroids play a crucial role in the development and differentiation of normal mammary gland as well as in the regulation of breast cancer growth. Local intracrine formation of sex steroids from inactive precursors secreted by the adrenals, namely, dehydroepiandrosterone and its sulfate, may regulate growth and function of peripheral target tissues, including the breast. Both endocrine and paracrine influences on the proliferation of human breast cancer cells are well recognized. Breast tumors harbor tumor-associated macrophages and tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes that secrete a wide spectrum of cytokines. These factors may also contribute to neoplastic cell activity. The present study was designed to investigate the action of cytokines on 3beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (3beta-HSD) activity, which is an essential step in the biosynthesis of active estrogens and androgens in human breast cancer cell lines and in normal human mammary epithelial cells in primary culture. 3Beta-HSD activity was undetectable in ZR-75-1 and T-47D estrogen receptor-positive (ER)+ cells under basal growth conditions. This activity was markedly induced after exposure to picomolar concentrations of interleukin (IL)-4 or IL-13. The potent stimulatory effect of these cytokines on 3beta-HSD activity was also observed in the ER- MDA-MB-231 human breast cancer cell line and in normal human mammary epithelial cells (HMECs) in primary culture. The stimulation of 3beta-HSD activity by IL-4 and IL-13 results from a rapid increase in 3beta-HSD type 1 mRNA levels as measured by RT-PCR and Northern blot analyses. Such an induction of the 3beta-HSD activity may modulate androgenic and estrogenic biological responses as demonstrated using ZR-75-1 cells transfected with androgen- or estrogen-sensitive reporter constructs and treated with the adrenal steroid 5-androstene-3beta,17beta-diol. The DNA-binding activity of Stat6, a member of the signal transducers and activators of transcription gene family, is activated 30 min after exposure to IL-4 and IL-13 in human breast cancer cell lines as well as in HMECs in primary culture. In these cells, Stat6 activated by IL-4 or IL-13 binds to two regions of the 3beta-HSD type 1 gene promoter, containing Stat6 consensus sequences. IL-4 induction of 3beta-HSD mRNA and activity is sensitive to staurosporine. This protein kinase inhibitor also inhibits IL-4-induced Stat6 DNA-binding activity. Our data demonstrate for the first time that IL-4 and IL-13 induce 3beta-HSD type 1 gene expression, thus suggesting their involvement in the fine control of sex steroid biosynthesis from adrenal steroid precursors in normal and tumoral human mammary cells. Furthermore, aromatase and/or 5alpha-reductase(s) are expressed in the mammary gland and in a large proportion of human breast tumors. An increase in the formation of their substrates, namely, 4-androstenedione and testosterone, may well have a significant impact on the synthesis of active estrogens and androgens in these tissues.