Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) are estrogen receptor (ER) ligands that function as antagonists in some tissues, but have either partial or full agonist activity in others. SERMs often display variable partial agonist activity in uterine tissues and this activity can be displayed in uterine cell lines such as the human Ishikawa endometrial adenocarcinoma cell line. In this study, we compared the effects of several ER ligands including some SERMs on alkaline phosphatase (AP) activity and the expression of an ER target gene, the progesterone receptor (PR), in Ishikawa cells. As expected, estradiol (E2) was a potent and efficacious activator of both AP activity and PR mRNA expression. 4-Hydroxytamoxifen (4OHT) stimulated AP activity to a level 47% of that of E2 (100nM), while CP 336156 (lasofoxifene) increased AP activity 18%. A benzothiophene, such as LY 117018, a raloxifene analog, stimulated AP even less with values approximately 11% of E2-stimulated levels. A pure antiestrogen, ICI 182,780 did not stimulate AP activity. Interestingly, when we examined the ability of these compounds to increase the expression of the ER target gene, PR, a different rank order of efficacy was detected. After E2, CP 336156 was the most efficacious in increasing PR mRNA with a maximal stimulation of 20% of E2 levels, while 4OHT stimulated only 17%. LY 117018 increased PR mRNA expression 8% while ICI 182,780 did not increase PR mRNA expression at all. These data illustrate the target specificity that a SERM is able to display within a single cell type independent of "tissue specificity" and differential levels of expression of various cofactors. While 4OHT is 160% more active than CP 336156 in terms of inducing AP activity in the Ishikawa cells, CP 336156 has equivalent activity as 4OHT when one examines the ability of these SERMs to induce PR mRNA expression. Since the stimulation of Ishikawa cells by ER ligands is often used to assess the potential in vivo uterotrophic activity, these data indicate that examination of several endpoints in these cells may be necessary in order to fully characterize the activity of SERMs.