The c-erbB-2/neu gene encodes a transmembrane protein of 185 kDa (p185) with tyrosine kinase activity and extensive sequence homology to epidermal growth factor receptor. Amplification and overexpression of the c-erbB-2/neu gene has been shown in certain human tumors and is postulated to be important in human carcinogenesis. High levels of expression of the c-erbB-2/neu gene have been reported in non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cell lines and primary tumors from the United States. Since geographical and cultural factors may contribute to the development of certain types of cancer, we examined p185 examined p185 expression in 120 tumors from Chinese patients with lung cancers of different cell types and used immunohistochemical staining to determine the extent and general significance of p185 expression in human primary lung cancer. Our results demonstrate that 58.8% of the NSCLCs expressed p185 and that expression of p185 was observed only in NSCLC and not in small-cell lung cancers. Thirty-three of 41 adenocarcinomas and 24 of 55 squamous cell carcinomas among the NSCLCs examined were found to express p185 at levels different from those of normal lung. For the squamous cell carcinomas, p185 expression was correlated with lymph node metastasis (P less than 0.01), but for the adenocarcinomas, it was not (P greater than 0.05). In addition, expression of p185 in NSCLC was significantly more frequent in patients in advanced clinical stages. Our findings indicate that p185 expression is a frequent event and a general phenomenon in NSCLC and is correlated with poor clinical prognostic indicators, suggesting that expression of p185 may be of potential prognostic importance in NSCLC.