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We have tested growth factor responsiveness of a panel of eight human colorectal carcinoma cell lines. Insulin-like growth factors I and II (IGF-I and IGF-II) stimulated growth of five lines (HT-29, LS411N, LS513, SW480, WiDr). At 30 ng ml-1 both factors enhanced growth up to 3-fold. They induced half-maximal stimulation at 1.9-6.51 ng ml-1. Even after delayed addition IGF-I and II significantly enhanced growth in a short-term proliferation assay. They exerted maximal effects under limiting serum conditions (0.5% FCS) and at low cell density (1.25-5 x 10(4) ml-1). Using these conditions transforming growth factor alpha (TGF alpha) enhanced proliferation of all IGF-responsive cell lines, except SW480. 1.11-3.31 ng ml-1 were required to obtain a half-maximal response. With 10-20 ng ml-1 maximal stimulation occurred at plateau values different from those for IGF-I/II. Proliferation of all cell lines responsive to both IGF-I and TGF alpha was further enhanced by combining both factors, resulting a synergistic response of LS513, while the effects on HT-29, LS411N and WiDr were additive. With HT-29 and LS411N a 24 h exposure to TGF alpha was sufficient to obtain a full response in the co-stimulatory assay. Our results illustrate the importance of IGF-I/II and TGF alpha as stimulators of growth of colorectal carcinomas.