The basis for the differential sensitivity of cultured normal human mammary epithelial (HME) cells and a transformed human breast cancer MCF-7 cell line to growth inhibition by the isoflavone genistein and its 4'-methyl ether derivative, biochanin A, was examined. In HME cells genistein is 5-fold more potent as a growth inhibitor than biochanin A, whereas in MCF-7 cells biochanin A and genistein are equally potent as growth inhibitors. Based on its properties as an in vitro protein tyrosine kinase (PTK) inhibitor, biochanin A would be expected to be a less potent growth inhibitor than genistein. To determine whether isoflavone metabolism could account for the observed differences in growth inhibition, metabolism experiments were conducted with HME and MCF-7 cells using [4-14C]genistein and [4-14C]biochanin A. MCF-7 cells extensively metabolized both isoflavones, producing two genistein metabolites with molecular weights of 350 and 380 and three biochanin A metabolites with molecular weights of 270, 350 and 380. In contrast, significant genistein or biochanin A metabolism was not observed in HME cells. Using mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance analysis, metabolite 350 from genistein and biochanin A experiments was identified as genistein 7-sulfate; biochanin A metabolite 270 was identified as genistein. Metabolite 380 was not unequivocally identified, but appeared to be a hydroxylated and methylated form of genistein sulfate. In MCF-7 cells, genistein 7-sulfate and metabolite 380 were detected primarily in the cell media fraction, suggesting that once formed these polar metabolites were excreted from the cells. These data show that isoflavone metabolism by transformed breast epithelial cells modulates the growth inhibitory effects of genistein and biochanin A. In MCF-7 cells, genistein metabolism was correlated with a decrease in growth inhibition, whereas biochanin A metabolism was associated with an increase in growth inhibition.