BACKGROUND: Abnormal amplification/expression of HER-2/neu oncogene has been causally linked with tumorigenesis and metastasis in breast cancer and associated with shortened overall survival of patients. Recently, heat shock protein 27 (Hsp27) was reported to be highly expressed in HER-2/neu positive tumors and cell lines. However, putative functional links between phosphorylation of Hsp27 with HER-2/neu status and other clinicopathological features remain to be elucidated. RESULTS: Comparative phosphoproteomic studies of HER-2/neu positive and -negative breast tumors revealed that Hsp27, one of the identified phosphoproteins, was highly phosphorylated in HER-2/neu positive tumors. The extent of Hsp27 phosphorylation at its Ser15, Ser78 and Ser82 residues were further evaluated with site-specific antibodies in tumor samples by tissue lysate array- and tissue microarray-based analyses, and in the BT474 breast cancer cell line treated with heregulin alpha1 (HRG alpha1) or the p38 MAPK inhibitor, SB203580. The tissue lysate array study indicated that only the level of pSer78 in HER-2/neu positive tumors was more than 2-fold that in HER-2/neu negative tumors. Treatment of BT474 cells with HRG alpha1 and SB203580 indicated that Ser78 phosphorylation was mainly regulated by the HER-2/neu-p38 MAPK pathway. Immunohistochemical staining of sections from a tissue microarray with 97 breast tumors showed that positive staining of pSer78 significantly correlated with HER-2/neu (p = 0.004) and lymph node positivity (p = 0.026). CONCLUSION: This investigation demonstrated the significant correlation of enhanced phosphorylation of the Ser78 residue of Hsp27 with HER-2/neu and lymph node positivity in breast cancer.