In the placenta, as in other organs, the development and maintenance of the differentiated phenotype depend on a balance between cell proliferation, maturation, and death. We are interested in the mechanisms that regulate the survival and differentiation of placental trophoblasts and have recently demonstrated that the inflammatory cytokines tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) and gamma interferon (IFN gamma) act in concert to induce apoptotic cell death in normal cytotrophoblasts in culture. In this report we show that exposure to epidermal growth factor (EGF), a 6,700 dalton polypeptide that is abundantly expressed in maternal and fetal tissues, blocks the in vitro TNF/IFN-induced cytotoxicity of human cytotrophoblasts and syncytiotrophoblasts from normal term placentas. This antagonistic effect is dose-related (10-10 M EGF, half-maximal) and proceeds via the interruption of an early step in the cytokine-induced apoptotic response. These observations suggest a novel role for EGF in normal placental development and indicate that the interplay between EGF, TNF alpha, and IFN gamma may determine the rate of trophoblast growth and renewal during gestation.