The differential expression of the ras oncogene product p21 in the primary tumor, regional nodes, and distant metastatic sites in patients with disseminated breast cancer was examined to define the biologic and clinical significance of the ras oncogene in the progression of breast cancer. The avidin-biotin peroxidase complex method was used on formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissues from 16 patients with metastatic disease. The primary antibody used in this protocol was RAP-5, an anti-p21 murine monoclonal IgG2a. p21 antigen staining was similar in the primary tumor and regional nodes from the same patient ( P<0.05), but the staining of distant metastases was more variable. Expression of ras p21 was consistently increased in invasive components of the primary tumor as compared with intraductal tumor In addition, a high level of p21 expression was seen in tumor emboli in lymphatics and blood vessels as compared with contiguous tumor in parencymal tissue. Although p21 staining is present in aggressive primary breast cancers and most metastatic sites, our findings indicate that markedly enhanced p21 expression is associated with the earlier stages (invasion and dissemination) of aggressive breast cancers.