The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and its ligand transforming growth factor (TGF) alpha are hypothesized to form an autocrine growth loop in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and to play an important role in tumor formation and progression. We studied the association between overexpression of EGFR, TGF-alpha, or both, and overall survival of patients with resectable NSCLC. Overexpression, defined as >20% of tumor cells staining on immunohistochemistry, was examined in 96 tumor samples from consecutive patients having resection of previously untreated, well-staged NSCLC who were then followed prospectively (median follow-up, 20.7 months). The expression of three other ligands for EGFR (epidermal growth factor, cripto, and amphiregulin) was examined by Northern analysis to determine whether they might also contribute to a potential growth stimulatory loop. Overall, survival was calculated by the method of Kaplan and Meier, and prognostic factors were compared using the log-rank test. Overexpression of EGFR only was found in 32% (31 of 96), of TGF-alpha only in 10% (10 of 96), of both EGFR and TGF-alpha in 38% (37 of 96), and of neither in 19% (19 of 96) of tumors. EGFR and TGF-alpha overexpression was observed in all tumor stages and histological types but was most frequent in squamous cell carcinoma. By univariate and multivariate analyses, only tumor stage, not histology or overexpression of EGFR, TGF-alpha, or both, had a significant impact on overall survival. No expression of epidermal growth factor or cripto was observed at the total cellular RNA level of Northern analysis in tumor or benign lung, suggesting that in NSCLC these ligands may not participate in an autocrine growth stimulatory loop with EGFR. Differential overexpression of amphiregulin in malignant versus normal lung was observed, but this expression pattern did not have a prognostic impact. Thus, EGFR and TGF-alpha overexpression is frequent in early-stage NSCLC but is not associated with a survival difference. These findings suggest that this growth factor/receptor loop is more important for lung tumor formation than for tumor progression.