Alterations in the expression of the epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor ErbB family are frequently encountered in a number of human cancers. Two of these receptors, ErbB3 and ErbB4, are known to bind a family of related proteins termed heregulins (HRGs) or neu differentiation factors. In biologically relevant systems, interaction of HRG with ErbB3 or ErbB4 results in the transactivation of ErbB2. In this report, we show that ErbB2 is a critical component in mediating HRG responsiveness in a panel of human breast and ovarian tumor cell lines. Because HRGs have been reported to elicit diverse biological effects on cultured cells, including growth stimulation, growth inhibition, and induction of differentiation, we systematically examined the effect of rHRGβ1 on tumor cell proliferation. HRG binding studies were performed with a panel of breast and ovarian tumor cell lines expressing a range of levels of ErbB2. The biological responses to HRG were also compared to EGF and to the growth-inhibitory anti-ErbB2 antibody, 4D5. In most cases, HRG stimulation of DNA synthesis correlated with positive effects on cell cycle progression and cell number and with enhancement of colony formation in soft agar. On each cell line tested, the HRG effects were distinguishable from EGF and 4D5. Our findings indicate that HRG induces cell proliferation in a number of tumor cell lines. In addition, we show that methods for measuring cell proliferation, as well as experimental conditions, are critical for determining HRGs effect on tumor cell growth in vitro.