Stromal fibroblasts influence the behavior of breast epithelial cells. Fibroblasts derived from normal breast (NAF) inhibit epithelial growth, whereas fibroblasts from breast carcinomas (CAF) have less growth inhibitory capacity and can promote epithelial growth. We sought to identify molecules that are differentially expressed in NAF versus CAF and potentially responsible for their different growth regulatory abilities. To determine the contribution of soluble molecules to fibroblast-epithelial interactions, NAF were grown in 3D, transwell or direct contact co-cultures with MCF10AT epithelial cells. NAF suppressed proliferation of MCF10AT in both direct contact and transwell co-cultures, but this suppression was significantly greater in direct co-cultures, indicating involvement of both soluble and contact factors. Gene expression profiling of early passage fibroblast cultures identified 420 genes that were differentially expressed in NAF versus CAF. Of the eight genes selected for validation by real-time PCR, FIBULIN 1, was overexpressed in NAF, and DICKKOPF 1, NEUREGULIN 1, PLASMINOGEN ACTIVATOR INHIBITOR 2, and TISSUE PLASMINOGEN ACTIVATOR were overexpressed in CAF. A higher expression of FIBULIN 1 in normal- than cancer-associated fibroblastic stroma was confirmed by immunohistochemistry of breast tissues. Among breast cancers, stromal expression of Fibulin 1 protein was higher in estrogen receptor α-positive cancers and low stromal expression of Fibulin 1 correlated with a higher proliferation of cancer epithelial cells. In conclusion, expression profiling of NAF and CAF cultures identified many genes with potential relevance to fibroblast-epithelial interactions in breast cancer. Furthermore, these early passage fibroblast cultures can be representative of gene expression in stromal fibroblasts in vivo. © 2008 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.