Regeneration of corneal epithelium following injury is essential for visual rehabilitation. A limited number of approaches are available for treating patients who fail to heal epithelial injuries adequately. The presence of specific receptors for epidermal growth factor (EGF) on epithelial cells suggests that this potent mitogen may play a role in normal epithelial wound healing. Topical application of biosynthetic human EGF significantly accelerated epithelial regeneration in primates following epikeratophakia surgery. Epidermal growth factor alone and with fibronectin accelerated epithelial regeneration of rabbits following mild alkali burns. Since prolonged exposure of cells to EGF is necessary to induce mitosis, the dynamics of EGF in the eye and with various lenses was studied. When applied in methylcellulose-based eye drops, 90% of the EGF was lost from tear film within 10 min, while a small amount (10%) remained associated with conjuctival tissue. Soft contact lenses or epikeratophakia lenticles took up substantial amounts of EGF (50 micrograms) and released 85% of the EGF within 24 h, with a half-life of 4 h in vitro. Epidermal growth factor did not diffuse through corneas or lenticles and did not promote epithelial downgrowth along sutures in primate corneas. These results suggest that biosynthetic growth factors may be useful in the treatment of some epithelial injuries.