We have previously demonstrated that an intracellular antibody (sFv) directed against erbB2 can achieve a specific cytotoxicity in erbB2 overexpressing cancer cells of varying histogenesis. In order to further delineate the mechanistic basis of the induced apoptosis, transient and stable cotransfections were performed. Transient cotransfection of erbB2 mutant and chimeric molecules demonstrated that the cytoplasmic domain of erbB2, or the homologous cytoplasmic domain of the epidermal growth factor receptor, is required for apoptosis induction. These results were confirmed in assays utilizing differential derivation of stable clones. To examine the effects of varying ratios of the anti-erbB2 sFv and its target erbB2 we performed additional cotransfection experiments in erbB2 negative target cells. When erbB2 levels are held constant, observed cytotoxicity is proportional to the amount of sFv added. In addition, when sFv levels are held constant, increasing levels of cotransfected erbB2 can overcome the apoptotic response. These results indicate that a minimal threshold level of the sFv and its target are required to induce cytotoxicity. To examine this phenomenon in an erbB2 positive cell line, SKOV3 ovarian carcinoma cells were utilized to derive a stable clone expressing low levels of sFv. When this cell line was compared to the parental SKOV3 cell line, it was shown that less exogenous sFv was needed to induce cytotoxicity in the clone already expressing low levels of sFv, indicating that endogenous and exogenous levels of sFv are additive. In summary, the results presented here indicate that the carboxy-terminus of the intracellular domain of the erbB2 molecule is involved in the induction of apoptosis. Furthermore, the expression levels of the sFv and its target protein need to overcome a threshold level in order to achieve a cytotoxic response.