The erbB-3 gene encodes a transmembrane protein that is related to the epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor and erbB-2. We compared erbB-3 expression in the normal human pancreas, human pancreatic carcinomas, and cultured human pancreatic cancer cell lines. Northern blot analysis of total RNA revealed the anticipated 6.2-kb mRNA transcript in all 19 normal pancreatic samples. In 17 of 27 pancreatic cancers, there was a 6.7-fold increase (P < 0.001) in erbB-3 mRNA levels. Southern blot analysis did not reveal erbB-3 gene amplification. Four of six pancreatic cancer cell lines exhibited the 6.2-kb erbB-3 mRNA transcript, and all four cell lines coexpressed the epidermal growth factor receptor and erbB-2. Using a highly specific antibody, we determined that faint to moderate erbB-3 immunoreactivity was present in the ductal cells in the normal pancreas. In 47% (27/58) of the pancreatic cancers, there were many cancer cells with intense erbB-3 immunostaining. The presence of erbB-3 in the cancer cells was associated with advanced tumor stage and shorter survival postoperatively. These data indicate that a significant proportion of human pancreatic cancers overexpress erbB-3, and that erbB-3 may contribute to disease progression in this disorder.