We have proposed that an early step in estrogen carcinogenesis in the hamster kidney is tubular damage followed by reparative cell proliferation. This tubular injury is progressive and increases in severity with continued estrogen treatment; one pertinent feature is a marked rise in the number of both secondary and tertiary lysosomes. Data presented herein indicate that cathepsin D, an estrogen-responsive lysosomal proteolytic enzyme, is increased in the kidney following estrogen treatment in the hamster. Three isoforms of cathepsin D were detected in estrogen-treated kidneys, 52, 31, and 27 kDa, the major being 52 kDa, At 1 and 3 months of estrogen treatment, 52-kDa cathepsin D content increased 1.4- to 1.6-fold. These changes coincided with a rise in renal estrogen receptor levels during the same estrogen treatment periods. More pronounced rises in cathepsin D levels, 2.7- and 3.5-fold, were seen after 4 and 5 months of estrogen treatment, respectively. A concomitant, 3.0- to 4.0-fold rise in estrogen receptor content was also observed. At 5 months of estradiol or DES treatment, both 27- and 31-kDa isoforms were present in hamster kidneys, in addition to the 52-kDa form. Neither progesterone nor DHT treatment affected the untreated levels of cathepsin D. Interestingly, either concomitant tamoxifen or DHT and estrogen treatment prevented the rise in cathepsin B and estrogen receptor content observed after estrogen treatment alone. Primary estrogen-induced renal tumors and their metastases exhibited markedly elevated levels of all three isoforms of cathepsin D. Immunohistochemical analysis of cathepsin D in kidney sections confirmed the Western blot findings. These data suggest a novel role for estrogen-induced cathepsin D in the hamster kidney during tumorigenesis; that is, mediating renal tubular damage as a prelude to reparative cell proliferation, thus initiating a multi-step estrogen-driven process which leads to renal tumor formation.