To gain better understanding of the molecular alterations responsible for the aggressive growth potential of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR)-positive breast cancers, we utilized an expression cloning strategy to seek gene products that mediate the EGF-independent growth of human breast cancer cells. A retroviral cDNA expression library was constructed from the EGFR-positive SUM-149PT cell line, and transduced into growth factor-dependent human mammary epithelial (HME) cells. Recipient cells were functionally selected for their ability to proliferate in serum-free, EGF-free medium. Library cDNAs were recovered from EGF-independent colonies by PCR amplification or by biological rescue. Clone H55a#1 contained a library insert encoding amphiregulin. This EGFR ligand was able to confer EGF independence when transduced into HME cells. SUM-149PT and H55a#1 cells overexpressed amphiregulin transcripts, and secreted moderate EGF-like activity in conditioned media, indicating a possible autocrine loop. EGFR membrane levels and constitutive phosphorylation were consistent with this hypothesis, as well as the sensitivity of the cells to an ErbB-specific kinase inhibitor. Expression of the WT1 Wilms' tumor suppressor gene, a transcriptional activator of amphiregulin, did not parallel amphiregulin transcript levels, suggesting that another factor regulates amphiregulin in SUM-149PT. Our data confirm the importance of amphiregulin in the etiology of breast cancer.