We have recently reported that treatment with gemcitabine, a potent chemotherapeutic agent and radiation sensitizer, stimulates phosphorylation of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). Because phosphorylation of EGFR is known to precede receptor degradation, we hypothesized that gemcitabine treatment may also result in EGFR degradation. In two human head and neck cancer cell lines, UMSCC-1 and UMSCC-6, we demonstrated an approximately 80% decrease in total EGFR levels at 72 h after a 2-h treatment with 1 muM gemcitabine. Neither cisplatin nor 5-fluorouracil, which are used to treat head and neck cancer, caused EGFR degradation. EGFR downregulation did not occur at the level of transcription, as assessed by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), but instead occurred via phosphorylation and ubiquitination of the receptor along a proteosome/lysosome-mediated pathway. Inhibition of EGFR degradation, by either pretreatment with the EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor gefitinib or by exposure to the proteosome/lysosome inhibitor MG132, significantly reduced gemcitabine-induced cell death. These results suggest that EGFR degradation may be a novel mechanism for gemcitabine-mediated cell death. These findings also indicate that caution should be exercised when combining gemcitabine with agents that may prevent EGFR degradation, such as EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors administered in a suboptimal sequence or proteosome inhibitors.