The human gastrin-releasing peptide receptor (hGRP-R) is aberrantly expressed in cancers of the colon, lung and prostate and mediates signals of cellular proliferation. However, the underlying mechanisms of aberrant and/or activation of hGRP-R expression are unknown. Therefore, a genomic clone is identified, the hGRP-R gene is characterized, and the hGRP-R promoter is defined. The protein coding region is divided into three exons and exon/intron splice sites occur in the proximal 2nd and distal 3rd intracellular loops of the receptor molecule. The hGRP-R locus extends over more than 27 kb and is assigned to the chromosomal band Xp22 by fluorescence in situ hybridization. With primer extension experiments, we demonstrate two major transcription start sites in gastrointestinal and breast cancer cells, located 43 and 36 bp downstream of a TTTAAA motif which is identified 407 to 402 bp upstream of the ATG start codon. The hGRP-R is found most abundantly expressed in the normal human pancreas, where four gene-specific transcripts can be detected by Northern blot analysis, whereas only two transcripts are detected in the human stomach and, very weakly, in the adrenal cortex and the brain. In contrast, the human GRP-R is not expressed in the normal human colon, lung, and prostate. Steady state hGRP-R mRNA can also be detected in some cultured cells from breast, lung, and duodenal cancer. Robust hGRP-R promoter activity is demonstrated in a duodenal carcinoma cell line that natively expresses the functional hGRP-R. Truncation studies suggest a CRE motif, located 112 bp upstream of the major transcription start site, is required to confer basal hGRP-R promoter activity in duodenal cancer cells. These studies provide the necessary data to further elucidate molecular mechanisms of aberrant hGRP-R expression in human cancers.