We assessed the value of positron emission tomography (PET) with 2-[18F]fluoro-2-deoxy-D-glucose (FDG) and 16alpha-[18F]fluoro-17beta-estradiol (FES) in women with breast cancer for predicting response to systemic therapy. Results of FES-PET were correlated with estrogen receptor (ER) status. Forty-three women with locally advanced or metastatic breast cancer underwent FDG-PET and FES-PET prior to institution of systemic therapy. All patients had measurable disease and had tumors submitted for ER determination. Cancers were considered functionally hormone sensitive if the standardized uptake value of the lesion on FES-PET was >/=1.0 (FES+) and hormone resistant if the standardized uptake value was <1.0 (FES-). Information obtained by FES-PET was compared with the results of ER assays. The tumor response to chemotherapy and hormonal therapy was correlated with intensity of uptake by both FDG-PET and FES-PET. The ER status of the breast cancers was negative (ER-) in 20 patients, positive (ER+) in 21 patients, and unknown in 2 patients. All 20 of the ER- tumors were also FES-. However, of the 21 ER+ tumors, 16 were FES+ and 5 were FES-. Thirty patients were treated initially with chemotherapy, and 21 (70%) demonstrated objective responses. We were unable to correlate the response to chemotherapy with information obtained by FDG-PET or FES-PET. Thirteen patients were treated with hormone therapy, and 8 (61%) responded to that therapy. Only 1 of the 5 patients whose tumors were ER+ but FES- received hormone therapy, and this treatment resulted in disease stabilization only. Multiple sites of disease were assessed by FES-PET in 17 patients with metastatic breast cancer. Functional hormone sensitivity, defined by FES-PET, was concordant with multiple lesions in 13 (76%). Ten patients with locally advanced breast cancer developed recurrent disease. The initial site of recurrence was the breast in 5 patients. Of the 5 patients with systemic recurrence, 4 had disease detected at the site of recurrence on the pretreatment FDG-PET study but not detected on pretreatment computed tomography. In our experience, FDG-PET imaging is more sensitive than conventional imaging methods, including computed tomography, in staging women with breast cancer. When compared with the in vitro assay of ER status, FES-PET has an apparent sensitivity of 76% and specificity of 100%. Our finding of a subset of patients who have tumors that are ER+ and FES- suggests that the functional assessment of hormone sensitivity by PET imaging can identify patients with ER+ disease whose tumors are likely to be hormone refractory.