To gain insight into autocrine/paracrine mechanisms that may influence normal and abnormal growth of the human prostate, we studied the immunohistochemical localization of transforming growth factor alpha (TGF-alpha) and epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFr) in fetal, neonatal, prepubertal, and young adult glands. Results were compared with findings in specimens of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), dysplasia (prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia--PIN), and carcinoma. EGFr was strongly and exclusively expressed in fetal basal cells, whereas TGF-alpha was localized in these and secretory cells as well as in differentiating smooth muscle cells. In neonatal and prepubertal glands, EGFr continued to be found only in basal cells, whereas TGF-alpha was now present in smooth muscle and infrequently in secretory cells. In the normal adult prostate, the receptor was strictly localized in basal cells and in the lateral plasma membranes of secretory cells, whereas its ligand was exclusively expressed in smooth muscle. This pattern persisted in PBH, but both EGFr and TGF-alpha staining appeared to be enhanced in their respective cellular compartments. Irrespective of grade, in dysplasia diffuse-moderate EGFr and strong TGF-alpha staining were both present in a majority of secretory cells. Similarly, most cells in Gleason grade 3 and 4 carcinomas expressed both EGFr and TGF-alpha. Our findings suggest that an unregulated paracrine mode of growth attends the development of BPH, whereas malignant transformation and progression involves autocrine/paracrine mechanisms reminiscent of those found in the developing prostate.