Aberrant expression of tyrosine kinases such as c-erbB and EGFR contributes to the progression of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs). One mechanism may be potentiation of angiogenesis, since upregulation of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) expression by activation of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and/or c-erbB-2 has been described. Firstly, we demonstrated expression of all 4 members of the VEGF family in a panel of 15 HNSCC cell lines which over-express one or more c-erbB receptors. We then explored the regulatory roles of three major ligands with different selectivity of binding to c-erbB receptors (namely transforming growth factor-alpha (TGF-alpha), betacellulin (BTC) and heregulin-beta1 (HRG-beta1)) on VEGF-A, B, C and D expression in selected HNSCC lines. Using semi-quantitative reverse transcription-PCR, we showed that all three c-erbB ligands up-regulated VEGF-A mRNA (all isoforms) and VEGF-C (BTC max at 1-10 nM; TGF-alpha and HRG-beta1 max at 10-100 nM) but had no effect on VEGF-B. Interestingly, all ligands simultaneously down-regulated the expression of VEGF-D mRNA. A monoclonal antibody (mAb) which blocks EGFR ligand binding (ICR62) down-regulated the basal levels of VEGF-A (all isoforms) and VEGF-C, had no detectable effects on VEGF-B and increased VEGF-D. ICR62 also reversed the effects of all three erbB ligands (TGF-alpha, BTC and HRG-beta1) on VEGF-A, VEGF-C and VEGF-D expression. An anti-c-erbB-2 mAb (ICR12) showed similar effects on basal or ligand-modulated expression of VEGF in these cell lines, although to a lesser extent. Our results reveal that the four VEGF genes are regulated by c-erbB signaling pathways in a strikingly different manner, suggesting that they serve distinct, although perhaps complimentary (VEGF-A and VEGF-C) or antagonistic (VEGF-D) functions. The EGFR and c-erbB-2 signaling pathway(s) plays a role in VEGF regulation in HNSCC, although EGFR would appear to be dominant in this cell type.