of ZD1839 ("Iressa") is an orally active, selective epidermal growth factor receptor-tyrosine kinase inhibitor (EGFR-TKI), which blocks signal transduction pathways implicated in proliferation and survival of cancer cells, and other host-dependent processes promoting cancer growth. Permanent downstream activation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway can theoretically bypass the upstream block of epidermal growth factor receptor-dependent mitogen-activated protein kinase activation at the epidermal growth factor receptor level. We investigated the impact of epidermal growth factor receptor content, p53 status and mitogen-activated protein kinase signalling status on ZD1839 sensitivity in a panel of human tumour cell lines: seven head and neck cancer cell lines and two colon cancer cell lines (LoVo, HT29) with derivatives differing only by a specific modification in p53 status (LoVo p53 wt + p53 mut cells, HT29 p53 mut + p53 wt rescued cells). The antiproliferative activity of ZD1839 was evaluated by the 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyl tetrazolium bromide test. ZD1839 concentrations ranged from 0.2-200 microM (48 h exposure). Epidermal growth factor receptor expression, p53 status and p42/p44 (for testing a constitutively active mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway status) were determined by competition analysis (Scatchard plots), denaturing gradient cell electrophoresis and Western blot, respectively. Epidermal growth factor receptor levels ranged from 388 to 33794 fmol mg(-1) protein, a range that is similar to that found in head and neck tumours. The IC(50) values for cell sensitivity to ZD1839 ranged from 6 to 31 microM and a significant inverse correlation (P=0.022, r=0.82) between IC(50) values and epidermal growth factor receptor levels was observed. There was no influence of p53 status on the sensitivity to ZD1839. In two head and neck cancer cell lines with comparably elevated epidermal growth factor receptor expression, a two-fold higher ZD1839 IC(50) value was found for the one with a constitutively active mitogen-activated protein kinase. In conclusion, ZD1839 was active against cells with a range of epidermal growth factor receptor levels, although more so in cells with higher epidermal growth factor receptor expression. Activity was unaffected by p53 status, but was reduced in cells strongly dependent on epidermal growth factor receptor signalling in the presence of an intrinsically activated mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway.