Membrane protein levels of erbB-2 and epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor as well as gene aberrations affecting these proto-oncogenes in human mammary cancer were determined in primary and metastatic lesions. Among 57 patients erbB-2 gene amplification was detected in 11 tumors (19%). In 10 of these patients where expression levels could be assayed gene amplification was associated with a high level of erbB-2 protein. In contrast, EGF receptor gene amplification with over-expression of the protein product was observed in 2 tumors (4%). In addition, 14 out of 53 (26%) primary tumors exhibited moderately increased erbB-2 protein levels in the absence of gene amplification. Similar aberrations resulting in overexpression of EGF receptor protein without detectable gene amplification were associated with 2 tumors (4%) among 47 patients analyzed. In 7 patients, expression level and gene copy numbers of erbB-2 or EGF receptor were similarly altered in the primary tumor and metastatic lesions derived from the same patient. Concordance of increased receptor gene expression in primary and metastatic lesions combined with the observation that such alterations are detectable as early as stage I and II mammary tumors, suggests that overexpression of erbB protooncogene family members can develop early in breast cancer and is maintained during tumor progression. Comparison of erbB-2 overexpression with clinical disease parameters revealed a correlation of this alteration with inflammatory mammary carcinoma (P = 0.042) implying an association of elevated erbB-2 protein levels with enhanced malignancy of the tumor cell in vivo.