The expression of mRNA for the epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor, EGF and transforming growth factor alpha (TGF-alpha) was determined in 76 malignant, six borderline and 15 benign primary ovarian tumours using the reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction and related to clinical and pathological parameters. Of the malignant tumours, 70% (53/76) expressed EGF receptor mRNA, 31% (23/75) expressed EGF mRNA and 35% (26/75) expressed TGF-alpha mRNA. For the borderline tumours, four of six (67%) expressed EGF receptor mRNA, 1/6 (17%) expressed TGF-alpha mRNA and none expressed EGF mRNA. Finally, 33% (5/15) of the benign tumours expressed EGF receptor mRNA, whereas 40% (6/15) expressed EGF mRNA and 7% (1/15) expressed TGF-alpha mRNA. The presence of the EGF receptor in malignant tumours was associated with that of TGF-alpha (P = 0.0015) but not with EGF (P = 1.00), whereas there was no relationship between the presence of EGF and TGF-alpha (P = 1.00). EGF receptor mRNA expression was significantly and positively associated with serous histology (P = 0.006) but not with stage or grade. Neither EGF nor TGF-alpha showed any link with histological subtype or stage. The survival of patients with malignant tumours possessing EGF receptor mRNA was significantly reduced compared with that of patients whose tumours were negative (P = 0.030 for all malignant tumours; P = 0.007 for malignant epithelial tumours only). In contrast, neither the expression of TGF-alpha nor EGF was related to survival. These data suggest that the presence of EGF receptor mRNA is associated with poor prognosis in primary ovarian cancer.