We showed previously that insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) is detectable in small cell lung cancer (SCLC) tumor biopsies and cell lines and that recombinant human IGF-I stimulates DNA synthesis in SCLC cells. Here we report further studies on the role of IGF-I in 2 SCLC cell lines: HC12, classic; and ICR-SC17, variant. Immunoreactive IGF-I was detected in medium conditioned by HC12 but not ICR-SC17. Both HC12 and ICR-SC17 bound IGF-I with 100-fold greater affinity than insulin. Scatchard analysis revealed two classes of IGF-I binding site of high (Kd 0.1 nm, n = 2,300) and lower (Kd 3 nm, n = 28,000) affinity. In both cell lines [3H]thymidine incorporation was enhanced by recombinant human IGF-I, 100–1000 ng/ml. ICR-SC17 also showed growth enhancement as measured by increase in cell numbers. There was no response in HC12, probably due to endogenous IGF-I production. 125I-IGF-I binding and basal and IGF-I-stimulated mitogenesis were inhibited by monoclonal antibodies to IGF-I (SM1.20B, SM1.25) or the type I IGF receptor αIR3 but not an isotypic control monoclonal antibody. Antiproliferative effects were manifest in [3H]thymidine incorporation assays in serum-free conditions and growth of serum-supplemented liquid cultures. We also tested fresh or newly cultured tumor cells obtained by fine needle aspiration of metastases in three previously untreated and four relapsed patients with SCLC. IGF-I binding sites were demonstrable on fresh SCLC cells, and specific binding was inhibited by SM1.20B. All seven samples showed stimulation of [3H]thymidine incorporation in the presence of recombinant human IGF-I, 100–500 ng/ml. As in cultured cells, basal and IGF-I-stimulated DNA synthesis was inhibited by monoclonal antibodies SM1.20B, SM1.25, and αIR3 but not the isotypic control. These results confirm the findings of previous studies and suggest that IGF-I can function as an autocrine growth factor in SCLC in vitro and possibly also in vivo.