INTRODUCTION: Systemic chemotherapy is an important part of treatment for breast cancer. We conducted the present study to evaluate whether systemic chemotherapy could produce microsatellite instability (MSI) in the peripheral blood mononuclear cell fraction of breast cancer patients. METHODS: We studied 119 sequential blood samples from 30 previously untreated breast cancer patients before, during and after chemotherapy. For comparison, we also evaluated 20 women who had no relevant medical history (control group). RESULTS: In 27 out of 30 patients we observed MSI in at least one sample, and six patients had loss of heterozygosity. We found a significant correlation between the number of MSI events per sample and chemotherapy with alkylating agents (P < 0.0001). We also observed an inverse correlation between the percentage of cells positive for hMSH2 and the number of MSI events per sample (P = 0.00019) and use of alkylating agents (P = 0.019). CONCLUSION: We conclude that systemic chemotherapy may induce MSI and loss of heterozygosity in peripheral blood mononuclear cells from breast cancer patients receiving alkylating agents, possibly mediated by a chemotherapy-induced decrease in the expression of hMSH2. These effects may be related to the generation of secondary leukaemia in some patients, and may also intensify the genetic instability of tumours and increase resistance to treatment.