The epidermal growth factor receptor (HER1) has been implicated in regenerative growth and proliferative diseases of the human bladder epithelium (urothelium), however a cognate HER1 ligand that can act as a growth factor for normal human urothelial cells (HUC) has not been identified. Here we show that heparin-binding EGF-like growth factor (HB-EGF), an activating HER1 ligand, is an autocrine regulator of HUC growth. This conclusion is based on demonstration of HB-EGF synthesis and secretion by primary culture HUC, identification of HER1 as an activatable HB-EGF receptor on HUC surfaces, stimulation of HUC clonal growth by HB-EGF, inhibition of HB-EGF-stimulated growth by heparin and of log-phase growth by CRM 197, a specific inhibitor of HB-EGF/HER1 interaction, and identification of human urothelium as a site of HB-EGF precursor (proHB-EGF) synthesis in vivo. ProHB-EGF expression was also detected in the vascular and detrusor smooth muscle of the human bladder. These data suggest a physiologic role for HB-EGF in the regulation of urothelial proliferation and regeneration subsequent to mucosal injury. Expression of proHB-EGF is also a feature of differentiated vascular and detrusor smooth muscle in the bladder. Because proHB-EGF is known to be the high affinity diphtheria toxin (DT) receptor in human cells, synthesis of the HB-EGF precursor by human urothelium also suggests the possibility of using the DT-binding sites of proHB-EGF as an in vivo target for the intraluminal treatment of urothelial diseases.