We have examined the possible mechanisms of resistance to the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitors in tumor cells with variable levels of EGFR. ZD1839 (Iressa) is a small-molecular-weight, ATP-mimetic that specifically inhibits the EGFR tyrosine kinase. A431 cell growth was markedly inhibited by ZD1839 (IC(50)< or =0.1 microM) whereas the MDA-468 cells were relatively resistant (IC(50)2 microM). Low doses of ZD1839 delayed cell cycle progression and induced apoptosis in A431 cells but not in MDA-468 cells. In both cell lines, 0.1 microM ZD1839 eliminated EGFR phosphorylation. However, the basal activity of the phosphatidylinositol-3 kinase (PI3 K) target Akt was eliminated in A431 but not in MDA-468 cells, implying that their Akt activity is independent of EGFR signals. A431 cells express PTEN/MMAC1/TEP, a phosphatase that can dephosphorylate position D3 of phosphatidylinositol-3,4,5 trisphosphate, the site that recruits the plecstrin-homology domain of Akt to the cell membrane. On the contrary, MDA-468 cells lack the phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN), potentially setting Akt activity at a high threshold that is unresponsive to EGFR inhibition alone. Therefore, we reintroduced (PTEN) by retroviral infection in MDA-468 cells. In MDA-468/PTEN but not in vector controls, treatment with ZD1839 inhibited P-Akt levels, induced relocalization of the Forkhead factor FKHRL1 to the cell nucleus, and increased FKHRL1-dependent transcriptional activity. ZD1839 induced a greater degree of apoptosis and cell cycle delay in PTEN-reconstituted than in control cells. These data suggest that loss of PTEN, by permitting a high level of Akt activity independent of receptor tyrosine kinase inputs, can temporally dissociate the inhibition of the EGFR with that of Akt induced by EGFR inhibitors. Thus, in EGFR-expressing tumor cells with concomitant amplification(s) of PI3K-Akt signaling, combined blockade of the EGFR tyrosine kinase and Akt should be considered as a therapeutic approach.