A high expression level of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR)/HER1 has been suggested to lead to a shorter survival time and resistance to endocrine therapy in patients with breast cancer. To test the hypothesis that inhibition of the EGFR signalling pathway affects the antitumour effect of endocrine therapy, an EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor (EGFR-TKI), gefitinib, and an oestrogen receptor (ER) antagonist, fulvestrant, were administered to human breast cancer cells. A total of five human breast cancer cell lines were used. The effects of single or combined treatments with gefitinib and/or fulvestrant on cell growth, cell cycle progression and apoptosis were analysed. Changes in the expression levels of cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors, p21 and p27, an antiapoptotic factor, Bcl-2, and a proapoptotic factor, Bax, were also investigated. All cell lines tested were sensitive to gefitinib (50% growth inhibitory concentration, 10-28.5 microM). Breast cancer cell lines with a high expression level of HER1 or HER2 were more sensitive to gefitinib than the others. Gefitinib induced a significant G1-S blockade in ER-positive KPL-3C cells. Gefitinib induced significant apoptosis in HER1-overexpressing MDA-MB-231 cells. Gefitinib additively increased the antitumour effect of fulvestrant in all three ER-positive cell lines in a medium supplemented with 17beta-oestradiol. The combined treatment promoted cell cycle retardation in KPL-3C cells, which is associated with an upregulation of p21 by fulvestrant and gefitinib, respectively. Apoptosis was associated with downregulation of Bcl-2 by gefitinib in MDA-MB-231 cells. These results suggest an additive interaction between the EGFR-TKI gefitinib and the antioestrogen fulvestrant in ER-positive breast cancer cells.