The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is expressed in a wide variety of epithelial tumours including carcinoma of the bladder. Stimulation of the EGFR pathway is blocked by ZD1839 (Iressa), a highly selective EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor. Radical radiotherapy is an established organ sparing treatment option for muscle invasive bladder cancer and this study has explored the possibility for the use of ZD1839 as a radiosensitiser in this scenario. The effect of combination treatment with ZD1839 (0.01 microM) and ionising radiation in the established bladder cancer cell lines MGH-U1 and its radiosensitive mutant clone S40b was measured by clonogenic assays. A highly significant radiosensitising effect was seen in both cell lines (P < 0.001 for MGH-U1 and S40b cell lines). This effect was independent of the concentration of the drug and the duration of exposure prior to treatment with ionising radiation. Cell cycle kinetics of both cell lines was not significantly altered with ZD1839 (0.01 microM) as a single agent. A modest induction of apoptosis was observed with ZD1839 (0.01 microM) as a single agent, but a marked induction was observed with the combination treatment of ZD1839 and ionising radiation. These results suggest a potentially important role for ZD1839 in combination with radiotherapy in the treatment of muscle invasive bladder cancer.