To investigate the role of gefitinib in patients with high-grade gliomas (HGGs), a phase II trial (1839IL/0116) was conducted in patients with disease recurrence following surgery plus radiotherapy and first-line chemotherapy. Adult patients with histologically confirmed recurrent HGGs following surgery, radiotherapy and first-line chemotherapy, were considered eligible. Patients were treated with gefitinib (250 mg day(-1)) continuously until disease progression. The primary end point was progression-free survival at 6 months progression-free survival at 6 months (PFS-6). Tissue biomarkers (epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene status and expression, phosphorylated Akt (p-Akt) expression) were assessed. Twenty-eight patients (median age, 55 years; median ECOG performance status, 1) were enrolled; all were evaluable for drug activity and safety. Sixteen patients had glioblastoma, three patients had anaplastic oligodendrogliomas and nine patients had anaplastic astrocytoma. Five patients (17.9%, 95% CI 6.1-36.9%) showed disease stabilisation. The overall median time to progression was 8.4 (range 2-104+) weeks and PFS-6 was 14.3% (95% CI 4.0-32.7%). The median overall survival was 24.6 weeks (range 4-104+). No grade 3-4 gefitinib-related toxicity was found. Gefitinib showed limited activity in patients affected by HGGs. Epidermal growth factor receptor expression or gene status, and p-Akt expression do not seem to predict activity of this drug.