Exogenous EGF and TGF-alpha accelerate wound healing, but treatment effects are often modest. Using short-term human skin organ culture, we found that autocrine EGF receptor activation could account for this observation. Amphiregulin and heparin-binding EGF-like growth factor (HB-EGF) transcripts were rapidly and markedly induced, whereas EGF and TGF-alpha mRNAs were undetectable or only slightly increased. Vascular permeability factor and keratin 6 transcripts were also strongly induced, albeit with a >/= 3 h delay relative to HB-EGF and amphiregulin. All four transcripts were upregulated in actual healing skin wounds, HB-EGF and keratin 6 being the most prominent. The highly EGF receptor-specific tyrosine kinase inhibitor PD153035 strongly inhibited induction of all four transcripts in organ culture, as well as release of immunoreactive HB-EGF into the medium. These effects were confirmed using the anti-EGF receptor mAb 225 IgG. Neither PD153035 nor 225 IgG was toxic to keratinocytes, as judged by calcein-AM uptake. PD153035 completely abrogated the proliferative phase of keratinocyte outgrowth in skin explant cultures, whereas it had no effect on the antecedent migratory phase. Based on these results, we conclude that EGF receptor activation by highly inducible, keratinocyte-derived heparin-binding ligands is an important mechanism for amplification and transmission of the cutaneous wound healing signal.