Ménétrier's disease is an uncommon disorder of unknown etiology characterized by enlarged gastric folds with foveolar hyperplasia and cystic dilatation of gastric glands. Biochemical features that are seen frequently include hypoproteinemia, hypochlorhydria, and increased gastric mucus. Because transforming growth factor alpha (TGF alpha) is an epithelial cell mitogen that inhibits gastric acid secretion and increases gastric mucin content, we hypothesized that its altered expression might be involved in the pathogenesis of this disease. Therefore, we characterized TGF alpha immunoreactivity in the gastric mucosa of 4 patients with Ménétrier's disease. In contrast to the normal pattern of TGF alpha immunostaining in which TGF alpha appears most concentrated in parietal cells, there was intense staining in the majority of mucous cells in the gastric mucosa of patients with Ménétrier's disease. In one patient from whom sufficient fresh tissue was obtained to isolate RNA, expression of TGF alpha and the epidermal growth factor receptor was higher in the gastric mucosa relative to a normal control. In addition, metallothionein-TGF alpha transgenic mice, which overexpress TGF alpha in gastric mucosa, show a number of features characteristic of Ménétrier's disease. These include foveolar hyperplasia and glandular cystic dilatation, increased gastric neutral mucin staining, and reduced basal and histamine-stimulated rates of acid production. Taken together, observations derived from the human material and correlation with data from a transgenic mouse model support an important role for TGF alpha in the pathogenesis of Ménétrier's disease.