Epidermal growth factor (EGF), its related peptide transforming growth factor (TGF-alpha) and their common receptor (EGFR) have been implicated in the control of cell proliferation and differentiation in the gastrointestinal epithelium and may play an important role in gastric carcinogenesis. We compared the immunohistochemical expression and topographic distribution of these peptides using Western blot analysis in gastric carcinoma precursor lesions and in non-cancer tissue. We observed: (i) increased and extended expression of TGF-alpha in normal mucosa and hyperplasia in carcinoma fields compared with non-cancer controls; (ii) increased expression of EGFR in intestinal metaplasia (IM) from carcinoma fields compared with controls; (iii) EGF expression was not detected in normal mucosa and only weakly in IM; (iv) coexpression of TGF-alpha/EGFR and EGF/EGFR was higher in intestinal metaplasia in carcinoma fields than in non-cancer controls. We conclude that altered expression of TGF-alpha/EGFR is associated with morphological changes during gastric carcinogenesis. In this regard increased expression of TGF-alpha is a very early event which is subsequently followed by up-regulation of EGFR and this has important biological and clinical implications.