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Microcalcifications containing calcium hydroxyapatite (HA) are often associated with malignant human breast lesions. Frequently, they are the only mammographic features that indicate the presence of a tumoural lesion. We previously reported the induction of both mitogenesis and prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) production and the increased activities of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) MMP-2 and MMP-9 in normal human mammary epithelial cells and breast cancer cell lines, treated with HA. In the present study we attempted to elucidate the mechanism of these biological effects. Firstly, we found that direct cell-crystal contact was required for induction of mitogenesis as the effect was not merely a result of isotopic exchange of calcium into the culture medium. Treatment with bafilomycin A1, a proton pump inhibitor, abrogated HA-induced mitogenesis to control cell levels. These results suggest that phagocytosis and intracellular crystal dissolution is required for HA-induced mitogenesis. We also demonstrated that the increase in prostaglandin E2, previously reported, is due, at least in part, to HA-induced upregulation of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) in Hs578T cells. An accumulation of MMP-1 mRNA was also shown in response to HA stimulation in Hs578T cells. Furthermore, a HA-induced increase in interleukin-1β (IL-1β), a potent inducer of MMP-1 gene expression, was demonstrated in Hs578T cells at 2 and 4 h. Treatment with phosphocitrate (PC) (a naturally occurring inhibitor of calcium phosphate crystallisation, which is known to block a number of HA-induced biological effects in other cell types) blocked HA-mediated mitogenesis, as well as, COX-2, MMP-1 and IL-1β induction, at the transcriptional level. These results show that calcium HA crystals are capable of exerting significant biological effects on surrounding cells which can be abrogated by PC and emphasise the role of calcium HA in amplifying the pathological process involved in breast cancer.