The mechanisms by which c-erbB-dependent signaling contribute to the invasive potential of HNSCC remain to be fully elucidated. We have previously shown that c-erbB autocrine and/or paracrine stimulation upregulates MMP-9 but has no effect on the related gelatinase, MMP-2. BTC, a major c-erbB ligand, has the ability to efficiently activate all c-erbB receptors and to bind directly to EGFR and c-erbB-4. BTC is commonly expressed in HNSCC cells and exerts the most potent effects in terms of MMP induction relative to other c-erbB ligands so far tested. In the present study, we explored the contribution of major downstream events triggered by BTC/c-erbB receptor signaling to the regulation of MMP-9 and in vitro invasiveness of HNSCC cells. In human HNSCC cell lines, SIHN-006 and Detroit-562, BTC treatment resulted in rapid tyrosine phosphorylation of all c-erbB receptors whereas both endogenous MMP-9 and BTC-stimulated MMP-9 were predominantly mediated via EGFR. BTC induced ERK1/2, JNK/SAPK and Akt phosphorylation with differing kinetics but not p38 kinase. The BTC-dependent activation of JNK and PI3K/Akt pathways occurred predominantly via EGFR, whereas activation of the MEK-1/ERK pathway occurred via all 4 c-erbB receptors, although again predominantly via EGFR. Selective inhibition of ERK/MAPK (by PD98059 or U0126) and PI3K (by LY294002 or wortmannin) led to marked reduction of both basal and BTC-induced MMP-9 activity and invasive ability of HNSCC cells. In contrast, inhibition of p38 kinase with SB203580 produced no such effects. A specific inhibitor of NF-κB, BAY 11-7085, also blocked the stimulatory effect of BTC. No remarkable inhibition of MMP-9 and invasion was observed on targeting other cellular activities, such as PKA, PKC and PLC-γ. Taken together, our data show that BTC induces MMP-9 production and invasion primarily through activation of EGFR, MAPK and PI3K/Akt in HNSCC cells. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.