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A panel of 21 small cell lung cancer cell (SCLC) lines were examined for the presence of Transforming growth factor beta receptors (TGF beta-r) and the expression of TGF beta mRNAs. By the radioreceptor assay we found high affinity receptors to be expressed in six cell lines. scatchard analysis of the binding data demonstrated that the cells bound between 4.5 and 27.5 fmol mg-1 protein with a KD ranging from 16 to 40 pM. TGF beta 1 binding to the receptors was confirmed by cross-linking TGF beta 1 to the TGF beta-r. Three classes of TGF beta-r were demonstrated, type I and type II receptors with M(r) = 65,000 and 90,000 and the betaglycan (type III) with M(r) = 280,000. Northern blotting showed expression of TGF beta 1 mRNA in ten, TGF beta 2 mRNA in two and TGF beta 3 mRNA in seven cell lines. Our results provide, for the first time, evidence that a large proportion of a broad panel of SCLC cell lines express TGF beta-receptors and also produce TGF beta mRNAs.