The human homolog of the rat neu oncogene, HER2 (also termed c-erbB2) has been demonstrated in amplified form in human breast tumors with poor prognosis. Although amplification of the gene correlates with expression of a 185-kDa transmembrane glycoprotein, no extensive information is available regarding the extent of tissue and tumor specificity of this gene product. We have addressed this issue by immunohistochemically evaluating the expression of p185 HER2 in normal tissue and various tumors using monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) to distinct epitopes of its extracellular domain. No detectable levels of p185 HER2 were found in fetal tissues analyzed, with the exception of renal tubules in 2 out of 3 specimens tested and in intestinal epithelium. In adult tissues, detectable levels of this glycoprotein were found in a restricted number of cell types, the expression being heterogeneous among individuals and cell histotypes. Among the neoplasms assayed p185 HER2 was expressed in 46% of primary breast cancers, in 28% of ovarian tumors and in 30% of colon rectum malignancies. No male breast adenocarcinomas were p185-positive. A large number of other tumors tested revealed only a low incidence of expression of the p185. In metastatic breast tumors p185 HER2 was demonstrated homogeneously among multiple autologous lesions and almost invariably (80%) the expression of p185 in the primary lesion correlated with that of the deriving metastases. Our findings indicate that the expression of the p185 HER2 represents a tumor marker of clinical relevance in breast cancer. Whether this holds true for other malignancies remains to be explored.