Folate receptor-α (FR-α) is generally over-expressed in non-mucinous human ovarian carcinomas. The meaning of FR-α over-expression and its role in the 5-methyltetrahydrofolic acid (N5-CH3-H4PteGlu) transport in such tumors is not clear, especially compared with the reduced folate carrier (RFC), the other known folate transporter. In this study, we analyzed molecular FR-α and RFC expression in 16 ovarian carcinoma tissues and in 5 ovarian carcinoma cell lines using competitive PCR. Co-expression of the 2 transporters was found both in vivo and in vitro. FR-α mRNA expression in the cell lines was in good agreement with the corresponding protein expression evaluated by cellular folic acid binding and immunofluorescence analysis, using a specific monoclonal antibody (MAb) (MOv18). Moreover, RFC mRNA expression levels were consistent with the selective cellular binding of N-hydroxysuccinimide of [3H]-methotrexate (NHS-MTX). The 5 ovarian carcinoma cell lines (IGROV-1, SW-626, SKOV-3, OVCAR-3 and OAW-42), grown at physiological N5-CH3-H4PteGlu concentrations (20 nM) and expressing FR-α and RFC levels superimposable to those observed in vivo, were used as in vitro cellular model to evaluate the different contribution of FR-α and RFC to the transport of N5-CH3-H4PteGlu. The cytoplasmic N5-CH3-[3H]H4PteGlu accumulation observed in each cell line was approximately linear over 4 hr of incubation, but there was no correlation between the rate of folate internalization and FR-α and RFC expression levels. Furthermore, the selective inhibition of FR-α and RFC functionality allowed us to distinguish their differential role on the overall N5-CH3-[3H]H4PteGlu intracellular delivery. Treatment with the N-hydroxysuccinimide of folic acid, which blocks FR-α activity, showed only a partial inhibition (about 20%) of folate internalization in all the cell lines. In contrast, the inhibition of RFC by NHS-MTX, under conditions that did not affect FR-α functionality, generally reduced folate accumulation by more than 70%. Only one cell line (IGROV-1) showed a comparable contribution of the 2 transport systems. Our findings suggest that in ovarian carcinomas, in spite of its over-expression, FR-α generally plays a minor role in N5-CH3-H4PteGlu transport compared with RFC. Int. J. Cancer 75:125–133, 1998.© 1998 Wiley-Liss, Inc.