Genetic ras mutations are infrequent in breast cancer but Ras may be pathologically activated in breast cancer by overexpression of growth factor receptors which signal through Ras. Using a highly sensitive, coupled enzymatic assay, we measured Ras activation in 20 breast cancers, two fibroadenomas, and seven normal breast samples. Ras was highly activated compared to benign tissue in 11 of the 20 cancers; 7 of these 11 cancers expressed both the epidermal growth factor (EGF) and ErbB-2/neu/HER-2 receptors with the remaining four cancers with high Ras activation expressing one of these two receptors. In the other nine cancers, Ras activation was similar to that observed in benign breast tissue with none of these cancers expressing the EGF receptor while one expressed the ErbB-2 receptor. None of the cancers tested had an activating K-ras mutation nor did any of the cancers express a truncated EGF receptor or the c-FMS receptor. The activity of mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase was high in the cancers, and reflected the degree of Ras activation. In cultured mammary tumor cell lines, we showed that Ras activation was ligand dependent in cells overexpressing the ErbB-2 receptor. Thus, Ras was abnormally activated in breast cancers overexpressing the EGF and/or ErbB-2 receptors indicating there are sufficient ligands in vivo to activate these receptors, and this work provides a basis for new target-based treatments of this disease.