Autocrine expression of polypeptide growth factors may be important in the growth regulation of cancer cells. Different growth factor activities have been identified in a variety of tumors. This article describes a case of malignant ascites in a patient recently treated for breast cancer. The use of growth factor mRNA expression as a factor to differentiate between breast and ovarian origins of cancer cells contained in malignant ascites was examined. Expression of insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I), IGF-II, and transforming growth factor α mRNA was examined by ribonuclease protection assay. The tumor cells expressed IGF-II and transforming growth factor α, but not IGF-I mRNA. This pattern of growth factor expression is compatible with a breast cancer primary of the malignant cells contained in the ascites fluid. Therefore, IGF-I mRNA expression may be useful in distinguishing between adenocarcinomas of breast or ovarian origins.