Genistein is a naturally occurring dietary protein tyrosine kinase (PTK) inhibitor that is hypothesized to be responsible for the lower rate of breast cancer observed in Asian women consuming soy. Although genistein is a potent in vitro PTK inhibitor, its mechanism of action in vivo is not known. In vivo, breast cancer growth is regulated by estrogens and peptide growth factors, such as epidermal growth factor (EGF), the receptor of which has intrinsic PTK activity. Therefore, genistein may block mammary epithelial cell growth by interfering with signal transduction events stimulated by estradiol or growth factors. The effect of genistein, related isoflavones, and other tyrosine kinase inhibitors on fetal bovine serum-, estradiol-, and EGF-stimulated cell growth and signal transduction pathways was examined in five human breast cancer cell lines. Genistein inhibited the growth of these cells by each of the growth stimuli with IC50 values ranging from 2.6 to over 20 micrograms/ml. Growth inhibition by genistein was cytostatic and reversible at IC50 concentrations. Related isoflavones were less potent growth inhibitors than genistein, whereas the synthetic PTK inhibitor tyrphostin A25 was an equally potent growth inhibitor. The mechanism of genistein growth inhibition in human breast cancer cells did not depend on the presence of functional estrogen receptor signaling pathways or on inhibition of EGF-receptor PTK activity. Furthermore, genistein (< or = 20 micrograms/ml) did not decrease constitutive or EGF-induced tyrosine phosphorylation as determined by Western blotting with antiphosphotyrosine antibodies. These data suggest that although genistein inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells in culture, it does so without gross inhibition of PTK activity.