Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC) cell lines were studied for epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor expression. All NSCLC cell lines tested (eight of eight) had specific EGF binding sites, whereas only five of 11 SCLC cell lines bound EGF. NSCLC and SCLC cell lines expressed the same type of high affinity EGF binding sites with a Kd of 0.5 to 4.5 nm; however, NSCLC cells bound significantly more EGF than SCLC cell lines. The amount of binding sites in NSCLC cells ranged between 71 and 1,000 fmol/mg of protein and in SCLC cells, between 26 and 143 fmol/mg of protein. The two SCLC cell lines with EGF binding values within the range of NSCLC belonged to the variant subtype of SCLC. By means of an anti-erbB serum and indirect radioimmunoprecipitation, a strong Mr ∼170,000 protein band could be detected in the NSCLC cell lines. This protein corresponds to the EGF receptor molecule. Its identity was proven by competition with excess erbB antigen for the antibody during the radioimmunoprecipitation. Furthermore, this Mr 170,000 protein exhibited protein kinase activity as evidenced by in vitro autophosphorylation. The radioactivity incorporated into the Mr 170,000 band in radioimmunoprecipitation and protein kinase assays was 10 to 100 times lower in these SCLC cell lines which were positive in the EGF binding assay compared to the NSCLC cell lines. We conclude that NSCLC in contrast to SCLC expresses high levels of EGF receptors which may be used to facilitate the differential diagnosis in some cases of lung cancer. These data suggest that EGF may play a role in growth and differentiation of NSCLC.

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This work was supported by funds from the SFB 215 of the German Research Society, by the Deutsche Krebshilfe e.V. (K. M.), and the Stiftung Unterberg (B. H.).

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