Background: The quaternary isoquinoline alkaloid sanguinarine is receiving increasing attention as a potential chemotherapeutic agent in the treatment of cancer. Previous studies have shown that this DNA-binding phytochemical can arrest a number of different types of transformed cells in G0/ G1, and upregulate the CKIs p21 and p27 while downregulating multiple cyclins and CDKs. To more closely examine the responses of some of these cell cycle regulatory molecules to sanguinarine, we used immunocytochemical methods to visualize cyclin D1 and topoisomerase II behavior in MCF-7 breast cancer cells. Results: 5 - 10 μM sanguinarine effectively inhibits MCF-7 proliferation after a single application of drug. This growth inhibition is accompanied by a striking relocalization of cyclin D1 and topoisomerase II from the nucleus to the cytoplasm, and this effect persists for at least three days after drug addition. DNA synthesis is transiently inhibited by sanguinarine, but cells recover their ability to synthesize DNA within 24 hours. Taking advantage of the fluorescence characteristics of sanguinarine to follow its uptake and distribution suggests that these effects arise from a window of activity of a few hours immediately after drug addition, when sanguinarine is concentrated in the nucleus. These effects occur in morphologically healthy-looking cells, and thus do not simply represent part of an apoptotic response. Conclusion: It appears that sub-apoptotic concentrations of sanguinarine can suppress breast cancer cell proliferation for extended lengths of time, and that this effect results from a relatively brief period of activity when the drug is concentrated in the nucleus. Sanguinarine transiently inhibits DNA synthesis, but a novel mechanism of action appears to involve disrupting the trafficking of a number of molecules involved in cell cycle regulation and progression. The ability of sub-apoptotic concentrations of sanguinarine to inhibit cell growth may be a useful feature for potential chemotherapeutic applications; however, a narrow effective range for these effects may exist.