Addition of the neuropeptide galanin to small cell lung cancer (SCLC) cells loaded with the fluorescent Ca2+ indicator fura-2-tetraacetoxyme-thylester causes a rapid and transient increase in the intracellular concentration of Ca2+ ([Ca2+]i) followed by homologous desensitization. Galanin increased [Ca2+]i in a concentration-dependent fashion with half-maximum effect (EC50) at 20–22 nm in H69 and H510 SCLC cells. Galanin mobilized Ca2+ from intracellular stores since its effects on [Ca2+]i were not blocked by chelation of extracellular Ca2+. Pretreatment with pertussis toxin (200 ng/ml for 4 h) did not prevent galanin-induced Ca2+ mobilization. In contrast, direct activation of protein kinase C with phorbol esters attenuated the Ca2+ response induced by galanin. The effects of galanin could be dissociated from changes in membrane potential: galanin did not increase membrane potential in SCLC cells loaded with bis(1,3-diethyltiobarbiturate)-trimethineoxonol and induced Ca2+ mobilization in depolarized SCLC cells, i.e., in cells suspended in a solution containing 145 mm K+ instead of Na+. Galanin also caused an increase in the formation of inositol phosphates in a time- and dose-dependent manner (EC50 10 nm). A rapid increase in the inositol tris-phosphate fraction was followed by a slower increase in the inositol monophosphate fraction. Galanin stimulated clonal growth of both H69 and H510 cells in semisolid (agarose-containing) medium. This growth-promoting effect was sharply dependent on galanin concentration (EC50 20 nm) and markedly inhibited by [Arg6,d-Trp7,9,MePhe8]substance P, a recently identified broad spectrum neuropeptide antagonist. The results show for the first time that galanin receptors are coupled to inositol phosphate and [Ca2+]i responses in SCLC cells and, in particular, that this neuropeptide can act as a direct growth factor for these human cancer cells.