Autocrine growth stimulation has been identified in several types of human cancer. In the present study we wanted to establish whether autocrine stimulation of the epidermal-growth-factor receptor (EGF-r) by its ligand, transforming growth factor alpha (TGF-alpha) occurs in thyroid neoplasia. We examined 190 fresh, frozen thyroid tissue samples from 70 patients by immunohistochemistry with antibodies to EGF-r, TGF-alpha, c-erbB-2 and c-myc. EGF-r expression was detected in 17 out of 19 papillary carcinomas, TGF-alpha expression in 10, and c-erbB-2 expression in 15. No papillary carcinoma expressed TGF-alpha without also expressing EGF-r. Concomitant expression of EGF-r, TGF-alpha and c-erbB-2 was seen in 7 papillary carcinomas. No EGF-r, TGF-alpha or c-erbB-2 immunopositivity was found in normal-appearing thyroid tissue (25 cases), whereas a few of the non-neoplastic lesions (colloid goitres and diffuse hyperplasias) expressed either EGF-r or TGF-alpha. c-myc expression was detectable in all tissue samples, and expression was invariably nuclear. Increased expression was observed in 10 out of 19 papillary carcinomas, and 8 of these also co-expressed EGF-r and TGF-alpha. In situ hybridization confirmed the presence of TGF-alpha mRNA in tumour epithelium of TGF-alpha-immunopositive samples. The concomitant expression of EGF-r, TGF-alpha and TGF-alpha mRNA gives evidence for a TGF-alpha-EGF-r autocrine loop in thyroid papillary carcinomas. The increased c-myc expression may reflect the proliferative advantage of these tumours.