In search of critical genes in the mechanism of estrogen action in human breast cancer, we previously showed that estrogen stimulates transcription of the c-myc gene in estrogen-dependent (MCF-7) cells. We have now examined the role of c-myc in estrogen-stimulated growth of MCF-7 cells through the use of a synthetic antisense c-myc phosphorothioate oligonucleotide to specifically inhibit expression of the c-myc protein. Estrogen induces a 5-fold increase in c-myc protein expression within 90 min in steroid-deprived cells, as detected by Western blot. Prior exposure of MCF-7 cells to 10 microM c-myc antisense oligonucleotide results in up to 95% inhibition of the c-myc protein expression induced by estrogen. Antisense-myc oligonucleotide inhibits estrogen-stimulated cell growth by up to 75% over 9 days and also exerts a cytostatic effect on the growth of estrogen-independent MDA-MB-231 cells which show relatively high, constitutive expression of c-myc. Sense-myc and antisense-pS2 oligonucleotides have no effect on c-myc protein level or growth in either cell line. These results demonstrate both the specific and durable effects of antisense phosphorothioate oligonucleotides. Furthermore, these results indicate a critical role for c-myc in the growth of breast cancer cells and support the hypothesis that loss of estrogen regulation of this gene may be an important factor in the progression of breast cancer.