BACKGROUND: Oestrogen receptors (ER) have a well-established role to the initiation, progression and regulation of responses to treatment of breast, prostate, and lung cancers. Previous data indicates altered ER expression in oesophageal cancers (OC). However the role of ER subtypes and ER specific inhibitors in the regulation of OC progression remains unclear. This study sought to assess levels of ERα and ERβ in OC. The effects of highly selective ER antagonists on cell proliferation and apoptosis in two OC adenocarcinoma cell lines was also studied. METHODS: ERα and ERβ expression profiling in paired normal oesophageal mucosa and tumour tissues (n = 34; adenocarcinoma n = 28; squamous cell carcinoma n = 6) was performed using quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR). Correlation between levels of ER with the clinico-pathological features for OC was determined. The effect of selective ER antagonists on proliferation of OE33 and OE19 OC cell lines was studied. RESULTS: ERα and ERβ mRNA expression was significantly higher (p < 0.05) in tumour tissues relative to their paired normal mucosa and correlated inversely with survival outcome (p < 0.05). Upregulation of ERα mRNA correlated with higher pathological T-stage (p < 0.05) and lymph node metastasis (p < 0.05) while ERβ mRNA upregulation correlated with positive vascular invasion (p < 0.05). A significant concentration-dependent inhibition of proliferation in OE33 and OE19 cell lines was induced by a highly-selective ERα antagonist (MPP) and an ERβ specific antagonist (PHTPP) (p < 0.05). Moreover, anti-oestrogens induced cell death through stimulation of apoptotic caspase activity. CONCLUSION: These findings indicate that the ER system is involved in OC progression and thus may provide a novel target for the treatment of OC.