Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) is a transport protein that has growth-regulatory properties in many different tissues. It is known to interfere with responses stimulated by estrogen. The purpose of this study was to determine whether human AFP would inhibit the growth of human breast cancer. AFP was isolated from the culture supernatant of human hepatoma cells (HepG2) grown in serum-free medium and was purified by immunoaffinity chromatography. Human breast cancers were grown as xenografts under the kidney capsule of severe combined immunodeficient mice. The minimum inhibitory dose of AFP against estradiol (E2)-stimulated growth of human MCF-7 breast cancer xenografts was 10 microg/mouse/day, and maximum inhibition (no growth) was achieved with 100 microg/mouse/day. Daily treatment was required to sustain inhibition. This 100-microg dose of AFP also inhibited xenograft growth of E2-dependent T47 human breast carcinoma. Estrogen receptor-negative MDA MB 231 and BT20 human breast carcinoma xenografts were not inhibited by AFP (100 microg/mouse/day). Elevation in serum E2 occurred during AFP treatment. AFP did not compete with agonists for the estrogen receptor. These laboratory results are consistent with the findings of a literature search, which consistently showed an association between elevated pregnancy levels of AFP and subsequent reduced risk for breast cancer later in life. We conclude that AFP can inhibit growth of estrogen-dependent breast cancer and warrants further development as an agent for the treatment and perhaps even the prevention of human breast cancer.