INTRODUCTION: Expression of the putative Wnt signalling inhibitor Dickkopf-3 (DKK3) is frequently lost in human cancer tissues because of aberrant 5'-cytosine methylation within the DKK3 gene promoter. Since other Wnt signalling inhibitors have been reported to be targets of epigenetic inactivation in human breast cancer, we questioned if DKK3 expression is also epigenetically silenced during breast carcinogenesis and therefore might contribute to oncogenic Wnt signalling commonly found in this disease. METHODS: DKK3 mRNA expression and DKK3 promoter methylation were determined by RT-PCR, realtime PCR and methylation-specific PCR in breast cell lines (n = 9), normal breast tissues (n = 19) and primary breast carcinomas (n = 150), respectively. In vitro DNA demethylation was performed by incubating breast cell lines with 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine and trichostatin A. DKK3 protein expression was analysed by immunohistochemistry in breast carcinomas (n = 16) and normal breast tissues (n = 8). Methylation data were statistically correlated with clinical patient characteristics. All statistical evaluations were performed with SPSS 14.0 software. RESULTS: DKK3 mRNA was downregulated in 71% (five of seven) of breast cancer cell lines and in 68% of primary breast carcinomas (27 of 40) compared with benign cell lines and normal breast tissues, respectively. A DNA demethylating treatment of breast cell lines resulted in strong induction of DKK3 mRNA expression. In tumourous breast tissues, DKK3 mRNA downregulation was significantly associated with DKK3 promoter methylation (p < 0.001). Of the breast carcinomas, 61% (92 of 150) revealed a methylated DKK3 promoter, whereas 39% (58 of 150) retained an unmethylated promoter. Loss of DKK3 expression in association with DKK3 promoter methylation (p = 0.001) was also confirmed at the protein level (p < 0.001). In bivariate analysis, DKK3 promoter methylation was not associated with investigated clinicopathological parameters except patient age (p = 0.007). CONCLUSIONS: DKK3 mRNA expression and consequently DKK3 protein expression become frequently downregulated during human breast cancer development due to aberrant methylation of the DKK3 promoter. Since DKK3 is thought to negatively regulate oncogenic Wnt signalling, DKK3 may be a potential tumour suppressor gene in normal breast tissue.