The development of acquired resistance to antihormonal agents in breast cancer is a major therapeutic problem. We have developed a tamoxifen-resistant (TAM-R) MCF-7 breast cancer cell line to investigate the mechanisms behind this condition. Both epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and c-erbB2 mRNA and protein expression were increased in TAM-R compared with wild-type MCF-7 cells, whereas comparable levels of c-erbB3 mRNA and protein were expressed in both cell lines. Under basal conditions, phosphorylated EGFR/c-erbB2, EGFR/c-erbB3 but not c-erbB2/c-erbB3 receptor heterodimers were detected in TAM-R cells in association with increased levels of phosphorylated extracellular-signal regulated kinase 1/2 (ERK1/2). Both cell lines were capable of generating a range of EGFR-specific ligands and increased expression of transforming growth factor alpha was observed in TAM-R cells. Treatment of TAM-R cells with ZD1839 (Iressa) or trastuzumab (Herceptin) blocked c-erbB receptor heterodimer formation and phosphorylation, reduced ERK1/2 activity, and strongly inhibited cell growth. The MAPK kinase inhibitor PD098059 specifically reduced phosphorylated ERK1/2 levels and inhibited TAM-R growth. All three agents abolished ERK1/2 activity in wild-type cells but caused only small reductions in cell proliferation. These results demonstrate that TAM-R MCF-7 cell growth is mediated by the autocrine release and action of an EGFR-specific ligand inducing preferential EGFR/c-erbB2 dimerization and downstream activation of the ERK pathway.