Epidermal growth factor (EGF) stimulates the growth of several types of epithelial tissues and possesses a strong mitogenic activity that is mediated through its cell surface receptor (EGFR). The aim of this study was to characterize EGFR and measure its levels in head and neck tumors biopsies (70 patients); use of a simplified competition technique with a radiolabeled ligand allowed evaluation of functional EGFR. Five samples (4 tumors and 1 control) were used to characterize EGF binding. Graphic representation identified a single family of binding sites. Kd values revealed high affinity for EGF binding: mean Kd, 0.156 +/- 0.108 nM (0.095-0.347 nM). EGF-binding characteristics (Kd) were similar in nontumoral tissue samples (controls) and in tumor material. In 59 of 60 cases, EGFR levels were higher in the tumor than in the corresponding controls. A significant correlation was found between EGFR levels and tumor size and stage. Controls exhibited a trend toward higher EGFR levels in elevated sizes and stages. According to a cutoff EGFR value of 100 fmol/mg protein, which separated all controls from tumors, EGFR-positive tumors (greater than 100 fmol/mg protein) had a greater probability of complete response to chemotherapy than EGFR-negative tumors; other tumor characteristics, such as the degree of tumoral differentiation, tumor size, or stage, were unable to operate such a discrimination in the response to chemotherapy. EGFR may thus be an interesting biological marker for head and neck cancer.